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Israel Studies 7.3 (2002) 1-44

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The Arabs of Israel After Oslo:
Localization of the National Struggle

Elie Rekhess



The 1990s signified the beginning of a new era in Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, and constituted a change engendered both by internal developments in Arab society and by external developments in relations between Israel and its Arab and Palestinian neighbors. Internal change in the political and socioeconomic spheres during this period was prompted essentially by a generational shift that introduced not only new leadership and the consolidation of representative institutions and political pluralism, but also economic hardship and a widening gap between Jews and Arabs which were the products of a discriminatory and evasive government policy. At the same time, a historic turning point occurred externally—the start of a political process toward reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world and negotiations for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

These developments had far-reaching implications for the political and national world of the Arabs in Israel and marked a substantive turning point in the nature of the tie between Jews and Arabs within the Green Line. It would appear that while negotiations with the Palestinians were intended to bring about a solution to the territorial conflict created in 1967, an unintentional by-product was a gradual disintegration of the old pattern of minority-majority relations forged in 1948 with the establishment of the State of Israel.

In light of this new reality, the intellectual and political elite of Israel's Arab population began to reexamine the ideological paradigm underlying the extant infrastructure and to propose alternatives to the four-decade-old model of relationships.

Both the domestic and the external changes sharpened the dilemma of national identity faced by the Arabs of Israel. A dynamic situation was created which forged new content in the traditional conservative definitions of [End Page 1] identity, testing their viability. This applied especially to two terms used by academics to describe the political-national orientations of the Arab minority: "Israelization," i.e., the trend toward integrating into Israeli society, and "Palestinization," signifying the growing trend of national consciousness. It would appear that with the start of the 1990s, and perhaps earlier, but even more so with the start of the political negotiations, these terms could no longer depict national existence with the same accuracy as previously. Moreover, they initiated a relatively new current in local politics—the Islamic trend, which quickly gathered force.

The first part of this article deals with changes that occurred in the Palestinian and the Israeli affinities of the Arabs in Israel as a result of the influence of the peace process, with a focus on the political-national aspect. Notably, no comprehensive analysis is made here of the religious dimension, although mention is made of the activity of the Islamic movement. This is not meant to minimize the importance of developments on the Islamic plane, which I have examined in a study elsewhere.

The rest of the article points to a noticeable trend in Israeli Arab society—the localization of the national struggle. This development is based on a distinction between the identification and solidarity of the Israeli Arabs with the external Palestinian issue, especially with the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the consolidation of particularist national Palestinian patterns within Israel itself. The manifestations of this trend are explored on three levels: first, a critical examination of the character of the state of Israel as a Jewish democratic state, and the positing of alternative models to the extant one (i.e., a "state of all its citizens," autonomy, or a bi-national state); second, a new conceptual approach to the status of the Arab population in the state based on its self-perception as a national minority with collective rights; and third, signs of a national awakening anchored in the Israeli context, which may be labeled "reopening the 1948 files" (i.e., the question of land ownership, the right of return of uprooted residents, and the impulse to commemorate the Naqba).

Implications of the Peace Process



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