Israeli Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, far back, and the Israeli Moshav of Mei Ami. (Photo: AP)
It might have seemed to be one of the more innocuous elements in President Donald Trump’s deeply divisive Middle East peace initiative: the suggestion that a densely populated Arab region of Israel be added to a future Palestinian state, if both sides agree.
Instead, the proposal has infuriated many of Israel’s Arab citizens, who view it as a form of forced transfer. They want no part in the Palestinian state envisioned by the Trump administration, with many comparing it to the areas set aside for black South Africans as part of the apartheid government’s policy of racial segregation.
The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank also has adamantly rejected the plan, which would allow Israel to annex all of its settlements and large parts of the West Bank, leaving the Palestinians with limited autonomy in an archipelago of enclaves surrounded by Israel.
Inside Israel, outrage over the plan could once again mobilize Arab voters ahead of elections next month, potentially denying Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu another term and throwing the implementation of the Trump plan — already a long shot — into greater doubt.
Arab citizens make up about 20% of Israel’s population. They can vote but face discrimination and higher levels of poverty. They have close family ties to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and many identify as Palestinians. But they are also deeply rooted in lands that are now part of Israel, and most are immersed in Israeli society. Their political parties advocate reform, not partition.
Many Jewish-Israelis nevertheless view Arab citizens with suspicion, seeing them as a fifth column sympathetic to the country’s enemies. A small number have been implicated in attacks, including on Thursday, when Israeli police say they shot and killed an Arab citizen in Jerusalem’s Old City after he opened fire and slightly wounded a police officer.
The Trump plan, released last week, “contemplates the possibility” that an area known as the Arab Triangle, which abuts the West Bank and is home to more than 250,000 Arab citizens, could be added to a future Palestinian state if both sides agree. The border would be redrawn, and no one would be uprooted from their homes.
But it raises questions of consent, as residents of the area have little power over the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority.
Jamal Zahalka, a former member of the Israeli parliament from the staunchly pro-Palestinian Balad party, said the plan is the latest iteration of a decades-old Israeli policy of maximizing territory while preserving its Jewish majority.
“They want more land and less Arabs, that’s the point,” Zahalka said.
“We will have the bantustan of the triangle here, part of the Palestinian bantustans,” he added, using a term for segregated homelands from apartheid-era South Africa.
Since the Middle East peace initiative was announced last week, US officials have played down the brief section of the 50-page plan that discusses the Arab Triangle.
“This is a territorial re-allocation. It is not intended to affect anybody’s citizenship,” Ambassador David Friedman told reporters last week.
“If there was interest in it, I would suspect there would be a lengthy legal discussion on how to implement it,” he added. ”The Palestinians are welcome to engage.”
Israeli media have cited unnamed officials as saying Netanyahu has no intention of implementing the idea and is focused on other parts of the plan. His office declined to comment on the reports or the idea of transferring the Arab Triangle.
But the idea is not new.
Avigdor Lieberman, head of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, has long advocated the transfer of populated Arab areas to a Palestinian state. His party platform states that Arabs could choose Palestinian citizenship to help “end the duality from which they suffer.” A senior party official declined to comment on the Trump plan, saying they were still studying it.
Israeli officials’ reluctance to discuss the issue could reflect political calculations ahead of the election — the third in less than a year after no one was able to form a majority coalition.
Netanyahu has inveighed against Arab citizens ahead of past elections in order to mobilize his right-wing base. Before September’s vote, he had proposed posting cameras at Arab voting stations, accusing his opponents of trying to “steal” the election.
Those tactics backfired when an Arab coalition emerged as the third largest bloc in parliament, contributing to Netanyahu’s failure to form a government.
Arab voters had sat out many past elections because of squabbling among their leaders and apathy borne of marginalization. No Arab party has ever sat in an Israeli government, and none of Israel’s main parties have invited them to do so.
Hassan Jabareen, the head of the Adalah human rights group, which focuses on Arab citizens, predicts the Trump plan will help rally Arab voters against Netanyahu.
“You have a new campaign, a new goal, a new objective, and a new discourse,” he said.
In a broader sense, the plan could hasten the transition from a struggle for Palestinian independence to one demanding civil rights in one binational state. With the Palestinian population of Israel and the occupied territories nearing parity with the Jewish population, that would threaten Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.
Jabareen says that with the release of the Trump plan, Palestinians are increasingly comparing the situation to apartheid, adding that the “remedy to apartheid is a one-state solution.”
Mohammed Mahameed lives in Umm al-Fahm, an Arab town in the heart of the triangle that Israelis have long associated with extremism because it is a bastion of political Islamists. But the 22-year-old plays soccer in a mostly Jewish league.
He says he gets along well with his teammates, most of whom are Jewish, and is warmly welcomed when he plays in cities and towns across Israel.
“I received love there that I cannot describe, really,” he said. ”We didn’t look at anything in a racist way.”
He fears that Umm al-Fahm may one day be cut off from the rest of Israel by roadblocks and checkpoints, preventing residents from traveling for work or recreation.
He didn’t vote in September but plans to next month.
Residents of the Arab Triangle have close ties to other Arab communities across Israel, and many own land and and businesses in different parts of the country. Many work in Jewish communities and send their children to Israeli universities.
Safa Aghbaria, another Umm al-Fahm resident, said the plan is a “crazy, unrealistic idea.”
“We are Palestinians, but they don’t have the right to transfer us to another authority,” she said. “We are here in our land.”