Israel's Arabs Are the Answer

Last week's massive Israeli reprisals against Hamas in Gaza, which followed the breakdown of a five-month truce, have made peace between Israel and the Palestinians seem more remote than ever. Yet the fighting also dramatized just how important it is to resolve the conflict once and for all. And the opportunity is running out: in a month, Israel will hold an election, and unless the Gaza fighting changes things dramatically, the winner will likely be a right-wing government led by the Likud's Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu. Such a government will be unwilling to ever make the compromises necessary to achieve a two-state settlement. That means that the prospect of peace will recede still further. The only way to prevent this outcome is to quickly change the rules of Israel's political game. And the way to do that is by ending the exclusion of Israel's own Arab population from government.

Consider: for almost four decades, Israel's political establishment has been deadlocked over peace with the Palestinians. The country's Jewish voters are basically split in half on the question. Yet Israel could break this stalemate by fully enfranchising its Arabs, who make up about 14 percent of voters. These citizens have full rights under Israeli law but have long felt like second-class citizens, and their political parties, though allowed in the Knesset, have been barred by tradition from joining coalition governments.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, set the precedent for this exclusion when he declared that his and successive administrations should be formed "without Herut or the communists." Herut was the right-wing party then led by his conservative rival, Menachem Begin, and that prohibition was abandoned by 1967.

But the ban on communists has lasted, for one main reason: because most party members also happen to be Arabs. Over the years, other Arab parties have managed to find their way into the Knesset, but they have never been invited to join an Israeli government. Arabs have served in the cabinet, but only if they were members of Zionist (Jewish) parties. On a few occasions, Arab parties have formed temporary blocking coalitions with Zionists, but the Arabs were never allowed close to the center of power.

Israel's Declaration of Independence guarantees all citizens equality, regardless of religion or ethnicity. Yet in many fields this principle has never been honored. The 2007 Equality Index published by Sikkuy, an NGO that works for equality between Israel's Arabs and Jews, shows that the life expectancy of Arabs is four years shorter than that of Jews, and that while the state invests about $130 per person per month for basic welfare for Jewish citizens, the figure is just $85 for Arab citizens. Such discrimination must end and the promise of Israel's founding document must be fulfilled—if not for moral reasons, then for a practical one. Israel will never find peace otherwise.

In February the pro-peace, centrist Kadima Party led by Tzipi Livni will face off with, and probably be defeated by, a combination of hawkish and religious parties led by Netanyahu. Should he become prime minister once more, there will be no meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians. Construction of the security fence and the expansion of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories will continue, as will the extension of a massive infrastructure of roads, water pipes, power lines and military installations that will make the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state physically impossible.

Bibi's coalition is likely to win 60 seats in the Knesset, versus Livni's 50. But Israel's Arabs could shift the balance decisively. In recent years they've tended to avoid national elections out of a sense of impotence. Were they convinced that their votes mattered, however, they could—like young Obama supporters in America—turn out in record numbers and win as many as 17 seats in Parliament, turning the tide for the center-left.

For that to happen, the Israeli peace camp must declare in advance its willingness to ally with Arab parties. Such an Arab-Jewish coalition would also have a galvanizing effect on Israel's population and help address years of discrimination. Israeli Arabs are feeling bitter about the Gaza attacks, but one of their own was the second victim of Hamas rocket fire in the first days of the fighting, which should make it easier to emphasize that they are an integral part of Israeli society.

Some Israelis fear that partnering with Arabs would somehow put the Zionist enterprise at risk. That notion is absurd. The state of Israel is powerful and dynamic. Gaza has reminded everyone how powerful Israel's military still is. Meanwhile, the economy is solid, thanks to an extraordinary high-tech sector. Israeli society is robust, with an enormously vital religious life and a flourishing arts culture. The state, in other words, is a going concern.

Yet as Gaza has once more reminded us, we Israeli Jews will not be able to reach peace with our neighbors on our own. We need the help of our fellow Arab citizens. Inviting them into a full and equal partnership would be the ultimate triumph of Zionism. In the age of Obama, the time has come to repudiate our old phobias and prejudices and move forward to a better future for our children and grandchildren.