By Ali Abunimah
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
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
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.