For over four decades, Prof. Sammy Smooha of the University of Haifa has directed the Arab-Jewish- Relations Index. This year’s findings reflect a deterioration in Jewish-Arab relations. Over half of Arab citizens in 2017 do not accept that Israel will be a state with a Jewish majority and do not recognize Israel as a Jewish and democratic state – a significant fall by comparison to the 2015 figures. Among Jews, a decrease can be seen in willingness to live next to an Arab neighbor, to let one’s children study at a school with Arab students, or to enter an Arab village or town. Nevertheless, a majority of Israeli Arabs think that Israel as a good country to live in, while most Jews are willing to take steps to increase equality, as long as these do not impair Israel’s Jewish character. “There has been a sharp deterioration in Jewish-Arab relations over the past two years, but this does not amount to a ‘sea change,” Prof. Smooha explains. “The majority of Jews and Arabs in Israel believe in a shared society.”
The annual Jewish-Arab Relations Index surveys have been undertaken since 1976. The latest survey, held over the period May-August 2017, included 700 Arab and 700 Jewish respondents constituting a representative sample of the adult population of each group.
The findings for 2017 show a decline in the legitimacy of Jews and the state as perceived by Arabs, and in the legitimacy of Arab citizens as perceived by Jews. In 2015, for example. 65.8% of Arabs recognized Israel’s right to exist, compared to 58.7% in 2017. Similarly, recognition of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish and democratic state fell from 53.6% to 49.1% over the same period. Recognition of Israel as a state that maintains a Jewish majority (i.e. a Zionist state) fell from 42.7% to 36.2%. The sharpest fall was seen in Arabs' reconciliation with the character of the state: in 2015, 60.3% of Arabs were reconciled with Israel as a state with a Jewish majority; in 2017 this fell to 44.6%. The level of reconciliation of Arabs with Israel’s Law of Return fell from 39.0% in 2017 to 25.2% in 2017; with Hebrew’s status as the dominant language fell from 63.4% to 49.7%; with the country’s distinctive Hebrew-Israeli culture fell from 56.2% to 45.6%; and reconciliation with the Sabbath as the national day of rest fell from 60.7% to 46.0%.
Nevertheless, Prof. Samooha notes that 61.9% of Arabs in 2017 (64.0% in 2015) still believe that Israel is a good place to live in, and 60.0% (58.8% in 2015) would rather live in Israel than in any other country in the world. Moreover, 77.4% (up from 72.2% in 2015) are not willing to move to a Palestinian state when one is established, and 55.8% (down from 64.2%) agree with the statement that “when I look at the disturbances and instability in the Arab world since the Arab Spring of 2011, I feel that it is good that I live in Israel.”
Prof. Smooha found a parallel decline among Jews in the legitimacy offered to the Arab minority. The proportion of Jews who recognize the Arabs’ right to live in Israel as a minority with full civil rights fell from 79.7% in 2015 to 73.8% in 2017; the proportion accepting the Arabs’ status as a minority with full civil rights in a Jewish and democratic state fell from 74.9% to 68.1%; and the proportion of Jews accepting Arabs as full members of Israeli society fell from 69.5% to 61.1%. Regarding the proposed Nation-State Law, 67.3% of Jews in 2017 (the same as in 2015) agreed that “a law is needed to determine that democracy will exist in Israel only if it does not damage a Jewish state.” Such a law is supported by 82.5% of Jews who define themselves as right-wing, 79.9% of moderate-right, 67.2% of center, 45.1% of moderate left, and 21.1% of left. “It appears that a majority of the Jewish public, with the exception of a small minority that identifies itself with the left, supports a new Nation-State law subjugating democracy to the Jewish character of the state, and thereby downgrading the status of the Arab minority,” Prof. Smooha explained.
Despite this deterioration in the attitudes of Jewish respondents, Prof. Smooha emphasizes that a large majority still accept Arabs as a minority with full rights and as an integral part of Israeli society. For example, 60.7% of Jews in 2017 agreed with the government decision from the end of 2015 to implement a major plan on a scale of 10-15 billion NIS to develop the Arab sector.
The comparison between 2015 and 2017 shows a fall in acceptance of coexistence. The proportion of respondents agreeing that “it is good that Arab and Jewish citizens will always live together in Israel” fell from 66.0% in 2015 to 63.1% among Arabs, and from 58.9% to 52.4% among Jews. A decline was found from 57.5% to 51.6% in the proportion of Jews willing to let Arab children study at the schools their children attend. The proportion of Jews stating that they refrain from entering Arab villages and towns in Israel, presumably due to a combination of alienation, fear, and boycott, rose from 59.3% to 63.7%. Jews are also more likely to reject Arabs as neighbors (48.0%, up from 41.0%) and as their superiors at work (39.8%, up from 29.0%). Prof. Smooha comments that despite the deterioration in terms of willingness to integrate, these figures reflect a high level of openness among both Arabs and Jews to coexistence within deeply divided Israeli society. He attributes the deterioration in the positions shown by Arabs and Jews to the actions of the right-wing government in curtailing democracy and campaigning against Arabs; the intifada among young Palestinians; the absence of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians; and a lack of awareness to date of the appreciable state’s investments in Arab society.
“Despite the profound gulf between Arabs and Jews and the downward trend in the attitudes shown by Arabs over many years, and among Jews in recent years, the surveys since 1967 reflect the ongoing existence of a firm foundation for Arab-Jewish coexistence in Israel. Most Arabs and most Jews believe in a shared society, accept the state within the Green Line as the framework in which their relations will take place, feel that Israel is a good place to live in, are committed to democracy as a mechanism for regulating their relations, and agree that civil equality forms the basis for coexistence and is an important national goal. Neither side wants to break the rules of the game. The Arab minority continues to attach its fate to the State of Israel and struggles to improve its status within the state. It does not detach itself from the state or from the Jewish majority. It does not prefer a Palestinian reality to an Israeli one and has not shown an inclination to stage major disturbances. The Jews and the state itself also have no interest in sparking a crisis with the Arab minority and recognize that this minority is distinct from the Palestinian under occupation and will always remain part of the population in Israel. There is no alternative but to get along with it,” concludes Prof. Smooha.