This week, Alpher discusses what strategic insights regarding Jewish-Arab relations in Israel can be derived from the manhunt and death of Neshat Melhem, the Dizengoff shooter; whether Israel can afford a larger police force; why Wadi Ara is particularly prone to pro-Palestinian sentiments; what did PM Netanyahu mean when he termed the Israeli Arabs a “state within a state;” whether this sort of state-within-a-state situation is unique to Israel in the Middle East; and how did the “state within a state” situation in Saudi Arabia and Iran find expression last week in the crisis in relations between the two.
Q. Neshat Melhem, the Dizengoff shooter who murdered three in Tel Aviv on Friday January 1, was killed by the Israel Police in his home town of Arara on Friday January 8, following a massive manhunt that left Tel Aviv residents traumatized for days. What broad strategic insights regarding Jewish-Arab relations in Israel emerge from this drama?
A. Melhem’s ability to hide for days in Arara where he was well known is worrisome. If he had at least one active accomplice who helped him escape from Tel Aviv, a number of passive accomplices were prepared to ignore his presence in Arara. This reflects the overall situation of lawlessness, Palestinian nationalism and distrust of government in the Israeli Arab sector that PM Netanyahu recently referred to.
But Netanyahu and the establishment are as much a part of the problem as of the solution. For years they ignored the proliferation of lawlessness and illegal weaponry in Arab towns, despite the entreaties of Arab officials. As long as Arabs were using illegal weapons to kill other Arabs, the indifferent state apparatus did not react. Neither the police nor the Shin Bet Internal Security Service maintained a large enough presence in the Arab sector. Indeed, the Israel Police seemingly sufficed with strange arrangements like licensing the deadly attack weapon held by Melhem’s father (“I’ve been part of the system for years”), within easy reach of his son who had already served a prison sentence for trying to abduct a weapon from an IDF soldier.
At the broadest level, the Shin Bet is preoccupied primarily with the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem rather than Israeli Arab areas like Wadi Ara, where Arara is situated. And the Israel Police is appallingly undermanned considering the tasks it faces. There were no police on Dizengoff Street when the attack occurred, though a police station is not far away. There is no police station in Arara, a town of 25,000. It is hard to find traffic police anywhere on the roads despite a worrisome rise in deaths from car accidents.
Q. Can Israel afford a larger police force?
A. Yes. It’s a matter of readjusting security priorities in accordance with radically changing security threats. Israel still needs anti-missile forces and an air force and navy to ensure strategic depth and a second-strike capability. And it needs border security and commando units. But today it faces no threat of invasion by massed Arab armies on its borders. Accordingly, it needs fewer classic war-fighting units like armor: tanks are costly.
Then too, with creeping annexation of the West Bank, the Palestinian “threat” in the territories and that posed by concentrations of disaffected Arabs in places like Wadi Ara inside Israel are merging. As a consequence, police tasks inside Israel and East Jerusalem and military tasks in the West Bank are increasingly indistinguishable. As the country comes under ever increasing right-wing messianic rule and influence and quasi-apartheid situations proliferate, this demands a rethinking of all these semi-military policing tasks.
This is not pleasant to contemplate. But until and unless the political situation changes and Israeli voters wake up to the looming one-state reality gradually imposed on them by their emerging right-messianic political elites, this is the reality. The Melhem manhunt, which for a while last week expanded into the West Bank, is a case in point.
Q. Is Wadi Ara particularly prone to pro-Palestinian sentiments?
A. Yes. First and foremost, because its Arab towns are underdeveloped and lacking in essential infrastructure. Arabs from Wadi Ara commute to jobs in Jewish towns, villages and cities because their own towns have no industrial base. “Planned” Jewish towns built in recent decades in Wadi Ara have been allocated far more state land than the sprawling “unplanned” Arab villages whose population density they are designed to dilute. These Israeli-imposed drawbacks have been amplified by widespread corruption among Arab municipal elected officials engaged in clan-based local politics, together with a failure or reticence to collect municipal taxes and apply them to local improvements.
Last week, the Melhem murders led Netanyahu to impose conditions on the generous government development package he had announced for the Arab sector the previous week. Now, it emerges, Israeli Arabs will have to build apartment houses (rather than single-family dwellings) and demolish homes built illegally to qualify for construction grants. They will have to encourage civilian national service in order to rate new health, education and sanitation facilities. All these demands might be considered reasonable and even salutary had the Arab sector not suffered decades of budgetary discrimination that helped bring about its current abject alienation and had Netanyahu not labeled Israeli Arabs a fifth column in his infamous election day warning last March that they were flooding to the polls.
As the Melhem case reminded us, Wadi Ara also borders on the Palestinian Authority, to which Israeli Arabs have free access--another possible reason for pro-Palestinian sentiments. Indeed, Wadi Ara only became part of Israel in mid-1949, when in the course of armistice talks Israel issued an ultimatum to Jordan and Iraq (whose forces occupied the area) to withdraw or be attacked. Israeli negotiators believed at the time that Israel needed the area, which was then populated only by Arabs, in order to ensure access from the coast to the Galilee and to broaden the narrow coastal strip. At the time, it seemed to make sense for the country to take on an additional hostile Arab population to achieve these aims. Today, when tunnels can be blasted through Mt. Carmel and there is no conventional military threat to Israel west of Iran, these considerations seem hopelessly outdated.
Q. At one point, PM Netanyahu termed the Israeli Arabs a “state within a state”.
A. In fact, by any reasonable criteria Israel actually has four states-within-a-state, all encouraged or at least acquiesced in by Israeli governments for decades. The first three--the 1.5 million strong Arab sector, the 200,000 strong Bedouin sector in the Negev, and the million strong Jewish ultra-orthodox sector--don’t do national service, don’t observe national holidays like Independence Day, and openly flout laws and norms regarding women’s rights. They frequently don’t enforce the national education curriculum. Yet all enjoy budgetary entitlements for their large families, which include a large percentage of non-productive adults not integrated into the economy.
A fourth state-within-a-state in Israel is the West Bank and East Jerusalem Jewish settlers. They are frequently able to flout laws regarding land ownership and construction, with a wink-and-a-nod from state institutions, while they enjoy extra financial entitlements denied to law-abiding Israelis who live within the green-line state.
When Netanyahu terms Israeli Arabs a state-within-a-state, he is deliberately ignoring the ultra-orthodox and the settlers, his political allies.
Q. Is this sort of state-within-a-state situation unique to Israel in the Middle East?
A. No. Lebanon has Hezbollah in its south and east; Hezbollah actually maintains a separate army alongside the state’s armed forces. So does Iran, where the Revolutionary Guards run their own economy, maintain their own terrorist networks regionally and globally and enjoy the patronage of the supreme leader, Khamenei.
In Saudi Arabia, the Wahabi fundamentalist religious establishment is tolerated by the vast monarchical ruling establishment in return for providing the monarch religious credibility. The Wahabis are responsible for much of the extremist incitement throughout the Sunni Muslim world, and the monarchy dares not touch them.
This begs the question: is Israel becoming more and more “tribalized” like its neighbors?
Q. Last week the “state within a state” situation in Saudi Arabia and Iran appeared to find expression in a major crisis in relations between the two.
A. The Saudis hung 47 religious extremists including 43 Sunni al-Qaeda sympathizers and one Shiite preacher who had incited against the state. Iran (which executes hundreds annually, including the stoning of women accused of adultery) responded to the execution of the Shiite by torching the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Saudi Arabia responded by severing diplomatic relations. A number of neighboring Sunni Arab states followed suit and cut or downgraded relations with Iran to varying diplomatic degrees of severity. One Arab observer labeled the developing Sunni-Shiite crisis that is being nourished by the Saudis and the Iranians on both sides of the Persian Gulf a new “cold war”.
Stepped up Saudi-Iranian tensions are already negatively affecting the (in any case dim) chances for some sort of Russian and American engineered diplomatic breakthrough and ceasefire in Syria. The next meeting of the International Syria Support Group, scheduled for January 25 in Geneva, looks at this point pretty hopeless. A barely respected ceasefire in Yemen also went by the wayside, with Riyadh renewing its bombing attacks on the Iranian-supported Houthis on January 1, a day before the executions. Just possibly, in their heart-of-hearts both Saudis and Iranians prefer matters unresolved in Syria and Yemen.
To be sure, the Saudis and Iranians had a host of reasons to exacerbate tensions. The Saudi economy is in a tailspin due to collapsing oil prices, yet Iran is planning to step up production as sanctions are eased, thereby lowering the price yet further. The Iran nuclear deal left the Saudis angry and suspicious toward their traditional US ally. They are openly anxious to find ways to sabotage what is widely perceived by the Sunni Arabs as a US switch of allegiance toward Tehran and a readiness to work with Iran in engineering a Syria settlement that leaves the Saudis’ enemy Bashar Assad in power. And Iran itself is perceived as continuing to sow dissent and terror inside Saudi Arabia and among its neighbors Bahrain and Yemen.
And where do the states-within-a-state enter the picture? The Saudis may execute Sunni extremists at home but they continue to tolerate and finance Wahabi extremist teachings--the kind that produced ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Taliban--abroad. They executed a Shiite preacher not only to poke a finger in Iran’s eye but to compensate their own Wahabi establishment at home (or vice versa, they executed 43 Sunnis, many waiting on death row for a decade or more, in order to justify killing a Shiite). In Iran, the Revolutionary Guards engineered the storming and burning of the Saudi embassy then backed away as the political establishment led by Rowhani and Zarif sanctimoniously condemned the act.
These are familiar patterns. The state-within-a-state offers the more official establishment convenient deniability. We see it in Israel with settlement construction projects seemingly hatched behind the back of PM Netanyahu. It was only when extremist settlers went too far and murdered an Arab family in the West Bank a few months ago, and ten days ago when an Arab from Arara went on a shooting spree on Dizengoff Street, that Israel’s states-within-a-state exceeded their tacit limits.