A Palestinian demonstrator holds a Palestinian flag next to Israeli soldiers, during a demonstration against the Separation Wall in the village of Bilin near the West Bank city of Ramallah, December 29, 2006. (MaanImages/Fadi Arouri)
President Carter has done what few American politicians have dared to do: speak frankly about the Israel-Palestine conflict. He has done this nation, and the cause of peace, an enormous service by focusing attention on what he calls “the abominable oppression and persecution in the occupied Palestinian territories, with a rigid system of required passes and strict segregation between Palestine’s citizens and Jewish settlers in the West Bank.”
The 39th president of the United States, the most successful Arab-Israeli peace negotiator to date, has braved a storm of criticism, including the insinuation from the pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League that his arguments are anti-Semitic.
Mr. Carter has tried to mollify critics by suggesting that his is not a commentary on Israeli policy inside Israel’s own borders, as compared with the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem — territories Israel occupied in 1967. He told NPR, “I know that Israel is a wonderful democracy with equal treatment of all citizens whether Arab or Jew. And so I very carefully avoided talking about anything inside Israel.”
Given the pressure he has faced, it may be understandable that Mr. Carter says this, but he is wrong. In addition to nearly four million Palestinians living under Israeli rule in the occupied territories, another one million live inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders. These Palestinians are descendants of those who were not forced out or did not flee when Israel was created in 1948.
They have nominal Israeli citizenship, and unlike blacks in apartheid South Africa, they do vote for the country’s parliament. Yet this is where any sense of equality ends. In Israel’s history, no Arab-led party has ever been asked to join a coalition government. And, among scores of Jewish ministers, there has only ever been one Arab minister, of junior rank.
Discrimination against non-Jewish citizens both informal and legalized is systematic. Non-Jewish children attend separate schools and live in areas that receive a fraction of the funding of their Jewish counterparts. The results can be seen in the much poorer educational attainment, economic, health and life outcomes of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Much of the land of the country, controlled by the quasi-governmental Jewish National Fund, cannot be leased or sold to non-Jews. This is similar in effect to the restrictive covenants that in many U.S. cities once kept nonwhites out of certain neighborhoods.
A 2003 law stipulates that an Israeli citizen may bring a non-citizen spouse to live in Israel from anywhere in the world, excluding a Palestinian from the occupied territories. A civil rights leader in Israel likened it to the American anti-miscegenation measures from the 1950s, when mixed race couples had to leave the state of Virginia to marry legally.
For Palestinians, the most blatant form of discrimination is Israel’s “Law of Return,” that allows a Jewish person from any country to settle in Israel. Meanwhile, family members of Palestinian citizens of Israel, living in exile, sometimes in refugee camps just a few miles outside Israel’s borders, are not permitted to set foot in the country.
The rise of Avigdor Lieberman, the new deputy prime minister, who openly advocates stripping Palestinians in Israel of citizenship and transferring them outside the state, reflects increasingly extremist politics. In response to growing discrimination, leaders of Palestinians inside Israel recently issued a report, “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel.” It calls for Israel to become a state where all citizens and communities have equal rights, regardless of religion. Many Israeli commentators reacted angrily, calling the initiative an attempt to dismantle Israel as a “Jewish state.” However, even if Mr. Carter’s recommendations are implemented, and Israel withdraws from the territories occupied in 1967, the struggle over the legitimacy of a state that privileges one ethno- religious group at the expense of another will not disappear.
As other divided societies, like South Africa, Northern Ireland and indeed our own are painfully learning, only equal rights and esteem for all the people, in the diversity of their identities, can bring lasting peace. This is an even harder discussion than the one President Carter has courageously launched, but ultimately it is one we must confront if peace is to come to Israel-Palestine.
Ali Abunimah is the author of “One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse” (Metropolitan Books, 2006).