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Postcards from the Edge

Adham Jamal, head of the local branch of the fundamentalist Islamic Movement, and Ze’ev Noiman, head of the local branch of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel is Our Home”) party, call themselves friends. Both men are deputy mayors of this mixed Arab-Jewish city near Haifa, and their offices are on the same floor of the municipality. “Adham is a great guy,” says Noiman, a retired career army officer. “He’s condemned terrorism. True, I don’t know what he says when he’s speaking among Arabs, but to us he says the right things.” Jamal: “Ze’ev isn’t a racist like Lieberman,” referring to Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman. “He grew up here in Acre. He lives with us.” Both men say they keep disagreements over national issues separate from cooperation on local issues.

Acre has always been an unlikely home for co-existence. Many of its 35,000 Jews are children of immigrants from Arab countries, or recent immigrants from the Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. And many of Acre’s 17,000 Arabs are poor and traditionalist. But somehow it’s worked. The security guard who checks the bags at the municipality is an Arab--a gesture of trust in the Arab minority I’ve never seen in Israel. The town’s Arab restaurants are filled with Jews. In Sa’id, one of the best hummus restaurants in the country, Jews and Arabs share tables; one recent afternoon there, I ate with a young Bedouin man named Ali, who had volunteered for the Israeli army and was voting for Kadima.

But the balance is becoming increasingly hard for Acre to manage. Last Yom Kippur, hundreds of Arabs and Jews fought in the streets. Jewish store windows were smashed, Arab homes firebombed. The riot was set off by an Arab man who drove into a Jewish neighborhood, violating the unwritten law against traffic in Jewish areas on the fast day. The driver, who Jews say was loudly playing Arabic music, publicly apologized, religious leaders from both communities met for a sulha, or peace accord, and Acre tried to return to normal.

The atmosphere of mutual distrust never quite dissipated, however, and now it has been coopted by two extremist parties. In the recent elections, Yisrael Beiteinu, which regards Israel’s Arab minority as a fifth column and wants to revoke the citizenship of those who won’t take a loyalty oath to the Jewish state, won as many votes in Acre as the more mainstream Likud party, according to local party officials. And a plurality of Acre’s Arabs voted for the nationalist Balad, or “Homeland,” which rejects a Jewish state and insists Arabs be recognized as a national minority. For Lieberman’s supporters, Balad founder Azmi Bishara--who fled Israel after being accused of spying for Hezbollah--embodies Arab treason. One ad by Yisrael Beiteinu declared it’s a “shame and disgrace” that former Knesset member Bishara “is still getting a pension of 8,000 shekels a month from the Israeli government.”

I’ve come to Acre because promoting Arab Israeli equality and Arab-Jewish co-existence is my civic passion. I know how hard it is to separate the Arab Israeli issue from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Israel’s Arabs are a unique minority: second-class within a Jewish majority, yet part of a regional majority hostile to Israel. But Israel’s dilemma is unique as well. To be true to itself, Israel must remain a Jewish state responsible for Jews around the world, and a democratic state responsible for all its citizens, Jews and non-Jews.

What’s breaking down in Acre is the habit of decency that makes these insoluble paradoxes possible. Acre offers a scenario for the unraveling of Israeli society. Between Lieberman and Bishara there can be no shared identity. If Yisrael Beiteinu and Balad are our future, then Lieberman is right: The greatest threat to Israel’s existence comes from within.

Acre’s walled Old City, one of the country’s leading tourist sites, has an Arab market, an ancient port, and a vast underground Crusader-era fortress of tunnels and vaulted hallways. Acre was the last capital of the Crusaders before they were expelled from the Holy Land. And that past intrudes on Acre’s politics. Jews say Arabs see them as Crusaders, conquerors who will one day be expelled. “They say it half-jokingly,” says Yisrael Beiteinu’s Noiman, “but it isn’t a joke.”

I have the fate of the Crusaders in mind when I visit the headquarters of Balad, a one-room storefront at the edge of the Old City, facing Ottoman walls built against the sea. “National Identity and Full Citizenship” reads the Arabic banner hanging out front. The citizenship is Israeli, but the national identity is Palestinian.

Balad’s posters and leaflets are only in Arabic; unlike Hadash, the mostly Arab Communist Party, Balad doesn’t even bother trying to appeal to Jews. On the wall is a large framed photograph of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the late Egyptian leader revered here for his pan-Arabism. Beside it hangs a poster warning young Arabs against doing alternative national service--“ A Step Toward Military Service.”

I ask Maryam Wishahie, an English teacher and a Balad activist, whether she thinks the Jews will end up being expelled like the Crusaders. “That depends on Israel’s behavior,” she says. “The Crusaders surrounded themselves with forts, just like Israel’s security wall. If Israel doesn’t become part of this region, it will have no future.”

The more immediate possibility, she fears, is that her Jewish neighbors will build a wall around Arab neighborhoods, or try to force Acre’s Arabs out. “The house next door to mine was recently bought by a Jew. I’m used to seeing the other: In my apartment building there are Muslims and Christians and a Jewish-owned restaurant. But this was done through an organization that wants to settle Jews in the Old City. What is this, the West Bank?”

For me, I say, the presence of Arab citzens in a Jewish state is an opportunity. You’re the only part of the Middle East I can still talk to.

“We’re not a bridge,” she counters. “A bridge means that you belong to both sides. We are Palestinians. But if Israel will make real efforts for peace, we can help draw hearts together.”

For Balad, peace can only happen when Israel abandons its Jewish identity--and its Jewish majority. “There is no solution between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism,” says Maryam.

The Acre headquarters for Yisrael Beiteinu is a ten-minute walk from the Old City, and it is located in the Histadrut labor union building, once a bastion of the left. A group of young activists sit at a recruiting booth outside. They are all secular; one young man has a ponytail, a young woman multiple piercings. Posters taped to the booth show Lieberman’s brooding bearded face, and the words, “Lieberman, I believe him.”

As the leading parties blur into each other, and peace and security become more elusive, Lieberman promises clarity. He breaks the rules, not only of civility but of Israel’s political categories. He combines left and right in a brutal pragmatism that speaks to a post-ideological generation. Lieberman is the only right-wing leader to support a Palestinian state. And he goes farther than the left in his willingness to concede territory, though for right-wing reasons: He wants to withdraw from areas within pre-1967 Israel that are overwhelmingly Arab, to reduce the number of Israel’s Arab citizens--to eliminate the internal enemy.

Lieberman’s young activists are eager to talk.

Itamar: “They say they’re discriminated against? I’m discriminated against. I have to do three years in the army; they don’t. Okay, I don’t want them in the army. But what about national service? When I get out of the army at twenty-one, an Arab young man is already a lawyer. I want them to contribute. Also the ultra-Orthodox.”

But whenever you target a specific group, I say, you’re on a dangerous road. Lieberman doesn’t target the ultra-Orthodox for avoiding military service, just the Arabs.

“It’s not like that,” says Itamar. “This is a life and death issue for the state. The ultra-Orthodox don’t call for the destruction of Israel. In another twenty years, we will lose this country if something isn’t done.”

Yotam: “We’re not motivated by hatred, but by love for our country. From the moment this state was born, the Arabs have tried to destroy us.”

Chen: “A minority anywhere has to respect the country.”

Yossi: “I see my future here in Acre with a Jewish majority, and with Arabs who respect the country. They want to be Palestinian? Then go to Palestine. This is the state of Israel.

Yotam: “This party [Yisrael Beiteinu] is my hope for staying in Acre.”

Yael: “For staying in the country.”

A car loudly playing Arab music drives by.

“You’ll see,” says Yael, “he’ll come back.”

He does. Twice.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor at The New Republic and a senior fellow at the Adelson Center for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

By Yossi Klein Halevi