Anger at Trump plan a possible driver of Arab-Israeli votes
UMM AL-FAHM - It might have seemed to be one of the more innocuous elements in US President Donald Trump’s deeply divisive Middle East peace initiative: the suggestion that a densely populated Arab region of Israel be added to a future Palestinian state, if both sides agree.
Instead, the proposal infuriated many of Israel’s Arab citizens, who view it as a form of forced transfer. They want no part in the Palestinian state envisioned by the Trump administration. Many compared it to areas set aside for black South Africans as part of the apartheid government’s policy of racial segregation.
The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank adamantly rejected the plan, which would allow Israel to annex all of its settlements and large parts of the West Bank, leaving the Palestinians with limited autonomy in an archipelago of enclaves surrounded by Israel.
Inside Israel, outrage over the plan could mobilise Arab voters ahead of elections next month, potentially denying Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu another term and throwing the implementation of the Trump plan — already a long shot — into greater doubt.
Arab citizens make up about 20% of Israel’s population. They can vote but face discrimination and higher levels of poverty. They have close family ties to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and many identify as Palestinians. However, they are also deeply rooted in lands that are part of Israel and most are immersed in Israeli society. Their political parties advocate reform, not partition.
Many Jewish Israelis view Arab citizens with suspicion, seeing them as a fifth column sympathetic to the country’s enemies. A small number have been implicated in attacks, including on February 6 when Israeli police say they killed an Arab citizen in Jerusalem’s Old City after he fired a weapon and slightly wounded a police officer.
The Trump plan “contemplates the possibility” that an area known as the Arab Triangle, which abuts the West Bank and is home to more than 250,000 Arab citizens, could be added to a future Palestinian state if both sides agree. The border would be redrawn and no one would be uprooted from their homes.
However, it raises questions of consent, because residents of the area have little power over the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority.
Jamal Zahalka, a former member of the Israeli parliament from the staunchly pro-Palestinian Balad party, said the plan is the latest iteration of a decades-old Israeli policy of maximising territory while preserving its Jewish majority. “They want more land and less Arabs, that’s the point,” he said.
“We will have the bantustan of the triangle here, part of the Palestinian bantustans,” he added, using a term for segregated homelands from apartheid-era South Africa.
Since the Middle East peace initiative was announced, US officials have played down the brief section of the 50-page plan that discusses the Arab Triangle.
“This is a territorial re-allocation. It is not intended to affect anybody’s citizenship,” US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said. “If there was interest in it, I would suspect there would be a lengthy legal discussion on how to implement it. The Palestinians are welcome to engage.”
Israeli media cited unnamed officials as saying Netanyahu had no intention of implementing the idea and is focused on other parts of the plan. His office declined to comment on the reports or the idea of transferring the Arab Triangle but the idea is not new.
Avigdor Lieberman, head of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, has long advocated the transfer of populated Arab areas to a Palestinian state. His party platform states that Arabs could choose Palestinian citizenship to help “end the duality from which they suffer.” A senior party official declined to comment on the Trump plan, saying they were still studying it.
Israeli officials’ reluctance to discuss the issue could reflect political calculations ahead of the election — the third in less than a year after no one was able to form a majority coalition.
Netanyahu has inveighed against Arab citizens ahead of previous elections to mobilise his right-wing base. Before September’s vote, he proposed posting cameras at Arab voting stations, accusing his opponents of trying to “steal” the election.
Those tactics backfired when an Arab coalition emerged as the third-largest bloc in parliament, contributing to Netanyahu’s failure to form a government.
Arab voters sat out many previous elections because of squabbling among their leaders and apathy borne of marginalisation. No Arab party has ever sat in an Israeli government and none of Israel’s main parties has invited them to do so.
Hassan Jabareen, director of the Adalah human rights group, which focuses on Arab citizens, predicted the Trump plan will help rally Arab voters against Netanyahu.
“You have a new campaign, a new goal, a new objective and a new discourse,” he said.
In a broader sense, the plan could hasten the transition from a struggle for Palestinian independence to one demanding civil rights in one binational state. With the Palestinian population of Israel and the occupied territories nearing parity with the Jewish population, that would threaten Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.
Jabareen said that, with the release of the Trump plan, Palestinians are increasingly comparing the situation to apartheid, adding that the “remedy to apartheid is a one-state solution.”