Israeli Arabs have made some demands (you can read them here) to “promote equality for the Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel”. These demands go far beyond what are usually meant by ‘equal rights’ and can be called a program for the realization of Palestinian national aspirations within Israel. It’s been argued that “if Israel does not define itself as the state of all its citizens it will not be a true democracy”; but what is being called for is in essence the end of Zionism. Is Zionism incompatible with democracy?
In other words, can a state be democratic but not ethnically neutral? I think it can and must. In most cases the very raison d’être for a state is that it is a homeland (and in the case of Israel a refuge) for a particular ethnic group. With a few exceptions (e.g., the US), all of the nations of the world define themselves with an ethnic reference. So how can these states be democratic?
I understand democracy as a system in which the will of the majority of the citizens, usually through some representative means (such as a parliament), determines the policy of the state. But this is not enough: in order to guarantee that the citizens have the capability of expressing their political will effectively, they must receive equal and fair treatment in the areas of civil rights, education, employment, housing, social benefits, health care, public works, etc.
Note that democracy does not require that the state view all citizens as identical in all respects, but just that it does not discriminate in ways that will affect their political rights.
The Palestinian demands go far beyond equal rights in this sense and include what I’ve called ‘national aspirations’. They demand, for example, that Israel (I suspect the name would be changed) must be defined as the state of both the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, and in fact that the Palestinians must be granted a special status as the ‘indigenous’ people of the region, including a veto power on all proposed laws. They insist that there be no preferential Jewish immigration (the Law of Return), although they insist on a right of return for the descendents of the Arab refugees of 1948 and 1967. They demand ‘symbolic’ changes, such as the flag and national anthem, as well as complete autonomy in areas such as education. I will leave the comparison of such a binational state (for this is what it is) to the Palestinian Authority, where Jews are not permitted to live, as an exercise!
The fact is that not only is such an interpretation of ‘equal rights’ not required for a nation to be democratic, but like all Arab proposals it is a recipe for the dismemberment of Israel.
There is a fundamental difference between equal rights and nationalist aspirations; the latter by definition can only be realized — as Zionists well understand — in a people’s own homeland. Therefore I suggest that those Israeli Arabs who will not be fulfilled living in a country not their own, albeit one in which their civil and economic rights are guaranteed, should look to the creation of an autonomous Palestinian state (outside of Israel, please).