One negative to come out of the Israeli election on April 9 was the decline in turnout among Arab Israelis. According to some reports only 44% turned out to vote, compared to 63.5% in the last election in 2015 (overall turnout was also down, but to a much smaller degree).
Some are blaming the “Nation-State Basic Law” passed last year, which declared that only the Jews have a right to national self-determination in Israel, and angered many Arab citizens. Even though the law was consistent with Israel’s existing constitutional framework, it was unfortunately worded without adequate reassurances about the equal rights of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens – something that would have been helpful even though those principles are already entrenched in other Israeli basic laws and the Declaration of Independence. Anger over the law resulted in some calls to boycott the election in the Arab sector, which may have depressed turnout. If so, this was another unfortunate effect of the Israeli government’s poor handling of the Nation-State Law.
However, that being said, recent polling data suggests there is every reason to believe that Jewish-Arab relations in Israel will recover from this setback fairly quickly.
There was a poll about the state of day-to-day relations between Jews and Arabs conducted just before the election by noted Israeli pollsters Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin and David Reis. This found that no less than 76% of Arab respondents said that, in their daily lives, relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel are largely positive. This is considerably higher than the 53% of Jewish respondents who said the same thing.
Moreover, 72% of Arab respondents said that Arab-Jewish cooperation was helpful in dealing with social and political issues such as environmental protection, workers’ rights and women’s rights.
That same survey showed something else – a growing tendency of Arab citizens of Israel to self-identify as Israeli compared to a similar poll done in 2014. Given the choice to identify themselves as “Palestinian”, “Arab”, “Palestinian Israeli” or “Arab Israeli”, a full 65% of Arab respondents chose an identity with Israeli in it – 19% Palestinian Israeli and 46% Arab Israeli. In 2014, the number identifying as “Israeli” in some form was 50% – 18% Palestinian Israeli and 32% Arab Israeli. Moreover, the number calling themselves just “Palestinian” was also way down – only 14% this year compared to 26% in 2014.
In other words, according to Israeli Arabs themselves, they feel Arab-Jewish integration and coexistence are definitely improving. This is despite the Nation-State Law, and despite some ugly and divisive rhetoric during the election campaign. As noted in this column previously, the recent Netanyahu-led governments can rightfully take considerable credit for this through positive policies they have implemented, even if they have also sometimes set Arab-Jewish coexistence back with mistakes such as the handling of the Nation-State Law, and unhelpful rhetoric.
Normalisation becoming Normalised?
It is no secret that Israel has been making major strides in building ties, most of them fairly covert, with Arab governments over the past decade or so. However, conventional wisdom says this can only go so far. It is argued that, despite Arab governments seeing Israel as an important potential ally against Iran, their domestic situation means they can’t actually move toward normalising relations with Israel in any serious way. Public opinion on their streets remains steadfastly anti-Israel and concerned about the plight of the Palestinians. Ties will thus always be very limited until a two-state solution is reached giving the Palestinians a state.
Yet new polling suggests this conventional wisdom is simplistic – and that, even on the Arab street, opinions about Israel are changing. Public opinion research commissioned by the Israeli Foreign Ministry late last year shows that in many Arab and Middle Eastern states with no diplomatic relations with Israel, growing segments of the population want normalised ties with the Jewish state.
While Saudi-Israeli ties are much talked about, only 23% of Saudis said they wanted closer ties between Riyadh and Jerusalem. But other countries scored much higher. Forty-three percent of Iraqis, 42% Emiratis, and 41% of Moroccans polled said they were in favour of ties between their nations and Israel. Even many Iranians, 34%, wanted ties, despite the constant poisonous anti-Israeli propaganda of the Iranian regime. Smaller but significant numbers of Tunisians (31%) and Algerians (21%) surveyed wanted ties with Israel.
To be clear, the surveys were done by professional pollsters in each country, and respondents were not told the research was commissioned by the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Of course, these numbers are not majorities – but they are still unthinkably high compared to the situation of say 20 years ago. I would be surprised if more than 5% of residents of any of these Middle Eastern countries would have said they wanted ties with Israel at that time.
The conclusion is that while open normalisation of ties with Israel might be a bridge too far for most Arab governments now, in another five to ten years, such a move might be actually popular with majorities of their own populations. And this is likely to be the case even if a two-state resolution continues to remain elusive.