Israel’s Palestinians: the Conflict Within by Illan Peleg and Dov Waxman (Cambridge University Press: 2011) 262 pgs. Reviewed by Uri Gopher

Written by admin on October 29th, 2012

Israel’s independence in 1948 heralded the establishment of a homeland for the Jews but persisting within its parameters has been a large Arab Palestinian minority estimated to make up 20% of its population (a figure that includes the Jewish settlements in the west bank and the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem). With rare exceptions, animosities run deep between the two communities where discrimination against the Palestinian minority is widespread and sharp inequalities and mistrust separate Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. October 2000 witnessed a convulsion of intercommunal violence when the state deployed heavy police forces to put down the protests of Palestinian citizens against the events that marked the beginning of the second Intifada, resulting in the deaths of thirteen Arab protestors by police gunfire.

What’s remarkable about this state of affairs is how little attention it receives outside the internal Israeli discourse, largely because Israel has no interest in internationalizing this divide, which it would rather frame (and have others frame, too) as a domestic affair. In this book, however, Ilan Peleg and Dov Waxman convincingly argue that continuing to focus on the “external” Jewish-Palestinian conflict in the West Bank and Gaza at the expense of the “internal” conflict portends disaster for Israel’s already strained democracy and a complete collapse of the two-state solution.  The authors put forth concrete proposals to effectively ‘manage’ the internal conflict, thus providing a roadmap for the internal Jewish-Palestinian conflict, as they often refer to this divide, to complement the often-discussed, roadmap to the external Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These suggestions are based on the authors’ in-depth analysis of the Israeli case-study as well as drawing on their combined expertise of the way majority-minority tensions have been dealt with in other democracies.

The book is meant to sound as an alarm and instill a sense of urgency, and it does so quite compellingly. The logic behind this urgent call for action can roughly be stated as follows: 1) Only a holistic approach that takes into account both external and internal Jewish-Palestinian relations can provide both parties enough stability and viability; 2) Most efforts have heretofore focused on the external conflict, which has far too long overshadowed the internal one; 3) Israel’s intentional and unintentional mismanagement of the internal conflict “courts disaster”, in their words. This is already apparent in current anti-democratic trends that may further undermine democracy in the region, lead to civil unrest, large-scale violence and a complete collapse of the two-state solution; 4) Incremental steps towards meeting the demands set by the internal conflict will not suffice. Major changes in the definition of state, increased provision of both individual and collective rights and new social contract between the Jewish majority and the Palestinian minority are necessary and still possible to achieve, albeit difficult.

The first part of the book provides an in-depth account of the “conflict within”, to which this book is dedicated. Those already familiar with the issues discussed – the Palestinian minority’s identity, history, politics, the extent of inequality and discrimination that exists, the majority’s views and attitudes towards the minority – may find that this part of the book adds little to their knowledge. Still, most readers, regardless of their background and experience, will appreciate the framing and narrative style in which information is conveyed.

The temporal thrust of this book is the present and future of Arab-Jewish relations. The first section of the book largely focused on the analysis of the events of the past decade and the authors’ account of the events and development of the conflict is fair and informative. One minor exception was their treatment of what is termed “the vision documents”. These refer to a series of four documents published in 2006-2007 that were produced by different Palestinian organizations, intellectuals, academics and political activists, all Israeli citizens. These documents present a harsh critique of the way the Palestinian minority has been treated by the state and set clear demands to the Israeli state and political system. Peleg and Waxman analyze these documents in great detail, exploring their implications for the future of Jewish-Arab relations. Though their analysis is comprehensive and persuasive, the authors tend to focus only on that part of the vision documents directed at the Jewish majority whilst ignoring those parts that feature self-criticism and challenge the Palestinian minority. As such, the authors’ replicate the manner in which these documents were presented to the Jewish majority, which is mostly in threatening terms.

The fact of the matter is that these documents also encountered heavy opposition from Palestinians in Israel. This was because all the documents recognized explicitly or implicitly the existing Israeli state as the point of reference and did not challenge that or relate to the status of a Palestinian state. They also referred little to the Palestinians living elsewhere. In addition, some of the documents were also highly critical of Palestinian society, especially towards its treatment of disempowered factions within the Palestinian society. These details should have been included in the authors’ analysis of these documents, so as to provide a fuller picture of their meaning, especially since they contain promising indicators for the minority’s commitment and willingness to enhance principles of liberal democracy.    

The second section of the book turns to suggesting new ways for significantly improving Jewish-Palestinian relations. The authors’ grand strategy for how Israel could better meet the needs of its Palestinian minority so as to enhance their sense of belonging and loyalty to the state includes three main elements:

1) A new state definition: despite Israel’s self-definition as “Jewish and Democratic state”, the former has been much more forcefully maintained than the latter. Based on their assumption that a re-calibration between the Jewish and democratic commitments is essential, the authors creatively propose to define Israel as “the Jewish homeland and a state of all its citizens”. Changing the existing formula from “Jewish state” to “Jewish homeland” the authors believe would soften the collective definition without altogether eliminating some Jewish collective rights, deemed crucial by the authors, in-order to reach compromise. The designation of “a state of all its citizens” granting legal equality to all citizens as “owners” of the state and providing members of the Palestinian minority a measure of recognition and protection which, together with other elements of this strategy, could move Israel towards a more inclusive and stable future.

2) A new rights regime: the authors propose a series of policies meant to enhance both the individual and collective rights of Palestinians in Israel as a distinct national minority. These policies would ameliorate internal tensions and reduce the future likelihood of large-scale inter-communal bloodshed. This list includes: establishing functional autonomy for Palestinians in some areas of public life, improving the overall economic conditions of Israeli Arabs through long-term development plans and equitable funding arrangements, adopting an aggressive anti-discriminatory policy, increasing the amount of land available to Arab municipalities, initiating affirmative action programs, and formally recognizing the main representative institutions of the Palestinian minority and strengthening the status of Arabic as an official language of the country. At first blush some of these recommendations may seem far-fetched to some but almost all of these have been raised at different points in time by prominent Israeli figures and scholars, including by the Orr Commission, the official state commission of inquiry into the October 2000 events.

3) A new socio-political contract between the majority and the minority: the Palestinian minority’s willingness to enroll in a voluntary civilian service, in lieu of the mandatory military service imposed on the Jewish majority, would lead to the reassessment of common conventions in both Jewish and Palestinian societies and help foster good relations between the communities. However, this notion is less developed in the book as compared with the other two elements.

Peleg and Waxman make clear that they write in the hope of avoiding future bloodshed. They want to assure the success and viability of a two-state solution because “there is absolutely no way Israeli Jews will accept a one-state solution. They will staunchly resist this, even at the cost of war.” (p.230). In recent years, however, a growing number of scholars and public figures, among them Jewish and Palestinian ones, have challenged this two-state consensus by calling for a one-state solution and/or claiming that the former is no longer achievable. Peleg and Waxman do not in any way relate to these recent trends, which are necessarily linked to possible solutions for the internal conflict. This is somewhat surprising, given that one-state supporters, like the authors, share the conviction that a solution to the Jewish-Palestinian conflict needs to address both the internal and external conflicts. While there is much sense in tapping into the existing paradigm of a two-state solution as a starting point from which pragmatic change may be initiated, the authors were intellectually amiss for not at least widening their theoretical scope to include possible ethno-national scenarios, even if they do not support them. .

For starters, it is not clear that the attitudes and emotional reactions towards a one-state solution by those who oppose it will be significantly different than their reactions towards the kinds of ground-breaking proposals set forth by the authors, as evident in the reluctance to adopt hardly any of these proposed measures to date. If prevailing attitudes and emotional reactions are key factors in determining which solutions should be addressed and considered in the book, it is an argument that could serve to dismiss the authors’ own propositions.

More problematic is the authors’ reliance on current demographics in “Israel proper”- inside the green-line – to guide the assessment of potential applicability of different theoretical frameworks used elsewhere in the world with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian case. For example, in page 157 the authors state that “In general, although consociationalism[1] might work in a demographically balanced ethno-national situation, such as Belgium or Northern Ireland, it is unlikely to work in countries where one group enjoys a clear demographic and political advantage. Canada, Estonia, Israel, Slovakia, Spain and Sri-Lanka are some examples”. Since the authors’ comparative unit of analysis is the Palestinian citizens of Israel who make up roughly 20% of Israeli population (16.5% if East-Jerusalem Palestinian residents are excluded from the analysis) the authors’ decision to omit any discussion of solutions that fall outside the two-state paradigm because of its inapplicability to the Israeli case seems plausible. However, since current estimates, including official ones, show that Palestinians already make up over  50% of the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, which is the prism used by one-state supporters, this represents the kind of a more “balanced ethno-national situation” that the authors themselves state might lead to different conclusions.

This omission, though, does not in any way detract from the important contribution the authors make in shedding light on possible holistic ways to move forward on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their book may well constitute a “last call” for two-state supporters; a cry the authors indicate towards the end of their book may be too late.


Uri Gopher is a recent graduate of the Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and served until recently as the Director of Policy Change at The Abraham Fund Initiatives in Israel.

[1] Consociationalism, a concept developed by Arend Lijphart, is part of the mechanisms included in power-sharing and was one of the demands put forth in one of the four “vision documents”  written by intellects of the Arab-Palestinian minority in Israel, discussed earlier.

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