The long disregarded claims of the Arab-Palestinian minority in Israel of enduring systematic discriminatory and exclusionary state policies have been increasingly acknowledged in official documents since the 1990s, and even more so in the aftermath of the tragic events of October 2000. This increased recognition has not only resulted from developments in the political arena, but rather has represented the fruition of consistent activities by the Arab leadership and human rights NGOs that point to the impoverishing and marginalizing impacts of these policies and advocate the protection of Arab-Palestinian citizens' rights at both the individual and collective levels.
In conjunction with growing state recognition, a number of official committees have been appointed to examine the state of affairs and develop action plans for rectification. The efforts of these committees have resulted in the adoption of partial development plans for Arab localities. Yet, not only were these plans never fully implemented, but their scope and rationale hardly provided any significant improvement in the Arab-Palestinian reality, either as a community or as individuals. Hence, Arab citizens continue to rank in the lowest socio-economic echelons of Israeli society, with more than half of Arab families falling below the poverty line. Arab localities continue to be characterized by high unemployment rates, inadequate infrastructure, and the absence of significant economic development. Discrimination is consistently apparent in state resource allocation in every field (such as land, education, housing, social services); and, Arab-Palestinians are regularly excluded from the centers of power and underrepresented in government institutions as well as in the general public sphere.
It is beyond the scope of this document to discuss the details of these development plans and their shortcomings. However, it is worthwhile to highlight the main reason behind their failure in bringing about any significant changes to Arab-Palestinian citizens’ reality: despite the fact that these plans were a direct result of the State’s acknowledgement of its discriminatory policies, they were never intended to abolish such practices altogether. Instead, they were designed to partially improve an existing situation – the result of years of negligence and discrimination – rather than eliminate its root causes.
In fact, a closer examination of the State's policies toward its Arab-Palestinian citizens in recent years (since October 2000) reveals that these policies remained generally intact, while some fundamental areas were further worsened, such as citizenship and land rights. Moreover, the State's policies remained under the influence of the security establishment, as the National Security Council and the General Security Services continued to interfere in the education system, family reunification issues and the de-legitimization of the Arab political leadership. In other words, though the rhetoric has positively changed, the actual policies reflect the same old patterns of thought (i.e. viewing Arab-Palestinian citizens as a demographic and security threat). Therefore, it is not surprising that the gap in socio-economic indicators between the Arab minority and the Jewish majority is constantly widening, and that the segregation and exclusion of the former from all arenas of the public sphere is constantly deepening. Nor is it remarkable that the main bulk of energy of both political leaders and human rights NGOs continues to be channeled toward the ongoing day-to-day struggle to protect Arab-Palestinian citizens' rights and prevent their further violation, rather than toward forward-looking strategizing and policymaking.
Nevertheless, the discrepancy between the State's rhetoric and the praxis highlights the need for the Arab minority to be more proactive in articulating the desired state of affairs from its own unique standing as an indigenous and marginalized minority. The four "visionary" documents produced by Arab Institutions in 2006 and 2007 reflect more than anything this growing realization. For the first time since 1948, the aspirations of the Arab minority regarding its status and rights were articulated, documented and presented to state forums for public debate. The debates that these documents have stimulated amongst the Jewish public reveal wide acceptance of the notion that equality should be the guiding principle in the State's allocation of public resources and services. At the same time, the Israeli public continues to reject, almost wholesale, of any possibility of altering the deeper, structural aspects of the majority-minority relationship in Israel and its implications on the second-class status of the Arab-Palestinian citizens, both in law and in practice. .
It seems that in the coming years, the State and the Arab minority will be engaged in a bargaining process with regard to Majority-Minority relations and respective citizenship rights. Obviously, the starting point, aspirations and perspectives of the each party are fundamentally different, if not contradictory to the other. While the former is driven by the principles of non-discrimination and “equality without challenging the foundation of the state”, the latter seeks the realization of “substantive citizenship” together with the recognition of its unique position, i.e. being an indigenous and substantial minority. Given the nature of the issues at stake, any reconciliation or bridging of gaps between the parties will require time and considerable efforts. Moreover, it will require not only the clarification of semantics, but also reaching agreements on practical measures to be taken to ensure full equality and participation in all spheres of life. Such measures will include the introduction of amendments to existing laws, as well as the development of policies and implementation mechanisms of a more equitable and inclusive nature. In this context, the main challenge ahead of the Arab-Palestinian minority leadership and activist community is the translation of the aspirations for substantive citizenship into concrete demands and objectives, as well as the articulation of alternatives to state policy.
It is this exact interplay of law and policy that the Arab Center for Law and Policy seeks to address at state level, while at the same time working to enhance the capacity of the Arab minority to make informed decisions on strategies and specific goals in the quest for substantive citizenship.