Interns for Peace: Esther Lafontaine, David Lafontaine, Gershon Baskin, and Tamar LaFontaine

The apology, democracy and peace

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Gershon Baskin thinks that Netanyahu has taken the first step forward on the path toward true equality. Now he must be encouraged to continue to journey.

From 1979 to 1981 I was a volunteer community worker living in the Palestinian Arab village Kafr Qara. I was the first participant in a program called “interns for peace” which developed programs of “coexistence” between Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian citizens (in those days we called them “Israeli Arabs”). There was a kind of urban legend back then that I heard hundreds of times, namely that Israel’s Arabs (such a patronizing title) could serve as a bridge of peace to Israel’s Arab neighbors. It didn’t take me long to understand that people who are marginal (at best) within their societies cannot serve as a bridge. It wasn’t just that some wise people pointed out to me that bridges are stepped on, it was also understanding the Israel’s Palestinian citizens are not only marginal in Israel, but being also Israeli they are also not fully trusted by their Palestinian and other Arab brothers and sisters.

A recent report published by three Israeli government ministries on the economic integration of Arab society in Israel documents systemic discrimination against the Palestinian citizens of Israel which has been going on for decades. This is well known to anyone who has ever visited Arab communities in Israel or has read reports issued by leading human rights NGOs in Israel such as Sikkui, Adala and Musawa. This report comes at the same time as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s videotaped message to Israel’s Palestinian citizens retracting his statement prior to the last elections in which he warned the Jewish public that the Arabs were being “bused in hordes” to the polls, to scare the public into voting for him.

Sometime between then and now Netanyahu has apparently rethought the essence of democracy and at least verbally apologized, even if too softly, to the more than 20 percent of Israel’s citizens who were simply exercising their democratic right to vote. I am not criticizing Netanyahu; I suggest we hold him to his word. The new plan for economic integration, and the apology, must be combined with a lot more actions of inclusions and genuine treatment of basic needs and problems afflicting the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Even if the change of spirit is the result of finally understanding that Israel’s entire economy stands to profit greatly from the economic development of the Palestinian citizens of Israel and not from a sudden urge to fully implement the words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence regarding the full equality of all of its citizens, this is a very positive development. We should also take note of the rather sudden rise in interest among Israeli Jews in learning Arabic. Israel’s few bilingual schools (part of the Hand-in-Hand network) are having to turn away potential students because of lack of space. Centers for learning Arabic around the country are facing new interest, such as the Jerusalem Intercultural Center which filled its autumn session beginning in September by the beginning of July, with some 300 students having registered and paid.

Perhaps this a positive response by some Israelis to the spike in anti-Arab racism which plagues Israel. Perhaps it is also a coming to terms with Israel’s reality as not only the nation-state of the Jewish people, but also the state of that 20% of citizens who are not Jewish but who serve as the ultimate litmus test of Israel’s democracy.

Back to the bridge: Israel’s Palestinian citizens will eventually help Israel to advance peace with the neighborhood, including with the future State of Palestine. I propose that we relate to them partners rather than a bridge – and they will be the best partners imaginable for normalizing Israel’s relations with the rest of the Arab world. This will only be possible when the Palestinian citizens of Israel are truly equal citizens who experience inclusion and partnership with their state.

When the State of Israel truly relates to the non-Jewish citizens of Israel as full citizens then we reach the beginning point for them becoming partners in building peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. But even then, Israel will have to demonstrate that it is committed to ending its control over the Palestinian people and putting an end to the one-state binational reality between the River and the Sea. The only alternative to not putting a border between Israel and the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria) is full democracy within the entire territory – one person, one vote – and be sure that it is not the Palestinian citizens of Israel who would be in opposition to this.

Israel’s continued existence and success as the nation-state of the Jewish people is completely dependent on Israel also being a genuinely democratic state which guarantees equality for all of its citizens. That does not only mean equality on an individual basis, it also means finding the ways and means to translate equal rights into equal collective rights for minorities within the state.

This is the main challenge for Israel’s democracy in this decade. Just as the state has recognized the rights of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) minority to implement its own curricula in its schools, similar steps should be taken, for example, to allow Israel’s Palestinian students to have a lot more autonomy within their school system. Core curricula must be applied for all Israelis, including haredim (noting sadly that the enforcement of a core curriculum for haredi schools was just voted out of law by the Knesset). The full integration of Israel’s Palestinian citizens into the state is also about allowing them to express their identity within Israel’s definition of its national identity as the State of the Jews.

Netanyahu has taken the first step forward on the path toward true equality. Now he must be encouraged to continue to journey.

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin is one of the most recognizable names in the Middle East Peace process. His dedication to creating a culture of peace and environmental awareness, coupled with his impeccable integrity, has earned him the trust of the leaders of all sides of the century old conflict. Few people have such far-reaching and positive impacts on promoting peace, security, prosperity and bi-national relationships.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.
Gershon Baskin