Israel's step backward

Montreal Gazette - Friday, July 12, 2002

Éditorial - Locked in violent struggle with people who want it wiped off the map and combatting suicide bombers whose aim is to slaughter as many Jews as possible, the last thing Israel can afford to do right now is to alienate voices of moderation.

But that is exactly what Israel has started to do this week, as a majority of cabinet ministers endorsed draft legislation that would, in effect, bar Israeli Arabs from owning homes on state-owned land.

About 90 per cent of land in Israel is state-held or controlled; in 2000, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that it is not legitimate to discriminate against Israeli Arabs in the use of this land.

This new bill would supercede that ruling and allow the designation of most land as "for Jewish settlement only." The effect will be to greatly restrict the ability of Israel's one million Arabs - 18 per cent of the population - to acquire property. "Jews want to live among themselves," said the extreme-right National Religious Party Knesset member who introduced the bill.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, for one, will try to defeat the bill, saying it promotes racism. Other critics speak of "apartheid."

We can understand the temptation that has led some Israeli lawmakers to back this drastic measure. Israel is the Jewish homeland, after all. And when the death toll - not only of soldiers but of civilians, including children and old people - passes a certain point, extreme laws begin to look more reasonable.

But Israelis need to pull back from this measure, for two principal reasons. Firstly, such controls on property are self-defeating and dangerous. Arabs living in Israel walk a tightrope; their loyalties torn between their neighbours and co-workers and their fellow Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza. While they enjoy full legal rights and send representatives to the Knesset, Israeli Arabs have never been fully integrated into Israeli society: they tend to be poor and ghettoized and are sometimes treated as second-class citizens. But they are an important if reluctant ally for Israel in its war for peace, stability and survival. The great majority of Israeli Arabs condemn suicide bombings, extremist politics and violent attacks: suicide bombings routinely claim Israeli Arabs as well as Jews.

To deprive Israeli Arabs of basic rights could tempt some of them into the paths of radicalization. Would this really be a good thing for Israel's Jewish majority?

Secondly, this bill, if passed, would bring into question Israel's status as a liberal democracy that respects human rights. Israel's free press, free elections, independent courts and due process of law have given that country considerable moral advantage, not least in the eyes of Western populations who recognize a kindred system of government. Limiting property rights in a discriminatory fashion is anachronistic and repugnant. This is simply not a legitimate tool; it must be repudiated.