Transnational Constitution? Stay Calm, Stay Tuned

Adalah Legal Center is the closest thing Israeli Arabs have to a mainstream think-tank. It is staffed by civil rights attorneys, mostly Israeli trained, who’ve been seasoned by (at times, successful) efforts to turn Israel’s courts against the structural discrimination of the state apparatus. Although formally nonpartisan, many of its activists have been close to Israel’s Balad Party, founded by the former MK, Azmi Bishara. More recently, Adalah has been morphing from a lawyerly non-profit, aiming at piecemeal legal reforms, into a center of political activism, engaging the Israeli public as a whole with public drafts of a new constitution. It is trying (what George H.W. Bush called) "the vision thing."

Bishara, whom I interviewed at length for my forthcoming book, has become a fugitive from the Israeli secret service, who’ve accused him of abetting Hezbollah during the last Lebanon war. When I spoke with him in 2005, he was still promoting the idea of Israeli Arabs as a national minority deserving of special status, something like radical Quebecers in Canada. Last year, Adalah brought out what it called a multi-cultural constitution for Israel, which pretty much put into legal terms Bishara’s peculiar political demands. Israel, it implied, should become binational, but in an awkward way that would give extraordinary privileges to the elected leadership of the Israeli Arab community, which would be recognized as a nation apart, though not quite part of a future Palestinian state.

Bishara had told me that, for its Palestinian Arab citizens, the real tragedy of Israel’s founding was the destruction of their elite bourgeoisie, which had been on a more or less equal footing with the Jews before the 1948 War. (Like most people who use the term bourgeoisie in this approving way, Bishara is a former Marxist.) The point of Adalah’s constitution, not coincidentally, was to reconstitute that elite by means of a kind of affirmative action. If Palestinians could not have an independent middle-class equal to the Jews, they would at least wield a bureaucratic and legislative power in the state apparatus equal to Jews.

Thus, although Israeli Arabs are one-fifth of the population, virtually any legislation impinging on Arab citizens would be subject to a kind of veto of Arab legislators. Lands confiscated from Arab citizens in 1948 would be returned. Arab towns would be reestablished. State symbols should be approved by a committee, half of whom would be Arab. Arabic should be an official language with statue equal to Hebrew. Yet Arab schools should be autonomous. The only thing missing is the British Mandate.

Would Israeli Arab elites (I asked Bishara) really want to stay in their township-like villages, and develop their own political economic infrastructure—not move to Tel-Aviv, or turn their villages into commercial suburbs of this global metropolis? There is, based on the votes of feet, room for doubt. To its credit, the Adalah constitution tried to move Israel to separate religion and state, and argued that public discussion should get beyond who is a Jew and get to what is a citizen. But instead of looking forward, Adalah seemed stuck in the past, internalizing the most tribal notions of nation, wanting an apology for 1948, and implying changes for Israel that were unnecessarily provocative and, in any case, impractical.

Until Friday. In a remarkable break (which he has not exactly acknowledged), Adalah’s chairman Hassan Jabareen has begun speaking about a larger federation of Israel and Palestine into which the Israeli Arab community would be subsumed. The model would be the new Europe, including the European Convention on Human Rights. The jurisdiction of a transnational entity would regulate our rights in both Israel and Palestine: it would celebrate culturally distinct nations in different states, sharing what needs to be shared in the context of a Europe-like framework.

It will be fascinating to follow how the Adalah scheme plays out. I shall follow it closely from now on. Many Israeli Jews will see yet another threat, no doubt. But Jabareen's logic suggests how the positive forces of globalization can help nations win without making others lose; it implies how to bring both Israel and Palestine up to code. Anyway, one can see how important Israeli Arabs will be to setting a framework for a workable solution between two states and, simultaneously, Israel's majority and minority. Like European Jews in 1848, Israeli Arab intellectuals have everything to gain from the virtues of federation and the pleasures of civil society. Which is why they have much to teach.