The 'Azmi Bishara affair has unleashed a fury of discussion about Israel's Arab population and its relation to the state, among Jewish and Arab citizens of the country. There is no doubt that this latest eruption is linked to the trauma of last summer's war with Hizbullah, which still lingers and manifests itself in a sense of profound malaise and depression. Few Israeli Jews will forget the declarations by some Israeli Arabs interviewed on television, who declared their support for Hizbullah, even as Israeli Arab children were killed in katyusha attacks and the entire north of the country cowered in bunkers and "safe rooms."
The inability of the Israeli army to stop the rocket barrages fired at the country's civilian population was rightly perceived as a major failure that left many wondering what had gone wrong. It also set up perfect conditions for the scapegoating of ethnic minorities. Indeed, the counter-charge leveled at the state by Bishara has been that Israel is looking to pin the blame for the defeat on the Arabs - a rather fanciful and demagogic move by the now-exiled former MK. The truth is that the Israeli political echelon, public, and media did not blame Israeli Arabs for the katyusha attacks. However, more than half a year after the end of the war, suspicions toward Israel's Arab citizens surely have reached a high. Some the key post-war markers that have paved the way to this state of affairs include the release of the 'Future Vision" report, the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as a minister in Olmert's government, and the various announcements by Shin Bet and government officials about the alleged dangers to the state posed by certain Israeli Arab organizations and leaders. The Shin Bet has since denied that Yuval Diskin made the remarks, to the effect that "Israeli Arabs constitute a strategic threat to the state" attributed to him. Nevertheless, long-standing fears that Israel's Arab citizens are a "fifth column" are likely to become increasingly respectable in Israeli public discourse - unless political leaders and intellectuals from the center and moderate right wing join the left in opposing these tendencies.
What could it possibly mean for Israeli Arabs to be a "strategic threat" to the state? This strikes me as an extremely serious and dangerous accusation to level at a whole group of the country's citizens. Those who make such charges are unlikely to elaborate on them, precisely because they would collapse if they became subject to serious discussion. Iranian nuclear weapons, Hizbullah's katyushas, and Syrian tanks and missiles, to name just a few examples, are strategic threats to the country. What all of those have in common is that a) they have the ability to cause significant harm first to Israel's citizens, and, as a result, to the country's economy, and ultimately to the viability of the state in its current borders, and b) they require the state to project military and political power beyond its boundaries. The same applies to Palestinian qassams and suicide bombers. The force used to combat these strategic threats, while subject to the constraints of international law, is not limited by the restrictions that apply to the use of force inside a liberal democratic state. The only way in which Israel's (diverse) Arab population could meet these conditions would be if the country's Arab citizens would en masse assist in a Syrian invasion, Hizbullah rocket barrages, or Palestinian suicide bombings. Clearly, contemplating such a scenario today is insane.
Yes, one might imagine individual Israeli Arabs transporting suicide bombers or spotting for Hizbullah - the former has indeed happened. But Jewish Israelis have also been convicted of assisting Palestinian terrorists. More importantly, preventing or prosecuting such acts does not require the use of force beyond the limits allowed by liberal democracy. Rather, they require focused police work that deals specifically with individual perpetrators.
So what are those who invoke the "strategic threat" posed by Israeli Arabs talking about? More often than not, those on the far right who employ these terms are most concerned not about real damage to the state and its citizens but about some change to their ideals on which the state ought to be based. In particular, there are fears that Israeli Arabs will demand some change to the Jewish character of the state - i.e., its overwhelmingly Jewish symbols and institutions, as well as such basic tenets of contemporary Zionism as the Law of Return, which guarantees citizenship to all Jews and their descendants wishing to immigrate to Israel. Those on the right are not the only ones who are concerned about changes to the culture and underlying vision of the country; indeed, there is nothing wrong with such concerns per se. It is an altogether different matter, however, to label those who advocate - within the confines of the country's laws - binationalism, autonomy, consociationalism, or whatever else, a "strategic threat." As soon as we start calling someone a strategic threat, we remove that person's or group's right to the protections offered to all citizens of the state in a liberal democracy.
At the heart of Carl Schmitt's critique of liberalism was his skepticism about parliamentary democracies' adherence to their many rules and procedures. In Die geistesgeschichtliche Lage des heutigen Parlamentarismus ([The Intellectual Historical Situation of Contemporary Parliamentarianism], 1923), often misleadingly translated as The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, Schmitt argued that crucial decisions about such issues as the security of the state, even in liberal democracies, do not result from deliberations in parliament but from the work of small cabinets and committees or from a head of state's executive powers. The implication, for Schmitt, was that in moments of crisis, a dictator acting in the "general will" (à la Rousseau) not only had more legitimacy (i.e., was more democratic) than a parliamentary democracy, but also that parliaments were incapable of dealing with crises that touched on the existence of the state.
I'm not conceding anything to Schmitt at this point, but it should be obvious to all concerned that such issues as the symbols of the state, the desirability of a written constitution, and even the Law of Return for Jews from the diaspora, can actually be dealt with much more effectively by a liberal democracy than by any other measures. These kinds of challenges will inevitably involve compromise. They require the formulation of comprehensive solutions that can satisfy many different interested parties. My point: these are the kinds of things that democracies are very good at; let's give democracy a chance.