Help build trust with Arab Israelis

By Michael Howard, June 6, 2008

The ordinary individual, too, has a role to play in the peace process

Last month we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the birth of the state of Israel. We paid tribute to its numerous spectacular achievements. We congratulated those responsible. Yet the fact that Israel still lives in an area of strife and has failed to build a lasting peace in the region casts a long shadow over those celebrations.

Of course, there are failings on all sides, and a huge number of words are directed — and wasted — in trying to establish where the greater fault lies. One of the unique tragedies of the conflict in the Middle East is that almost everyone knows what the ultimate answer must be. One day, there will be two states. Their boundaries will not differ greatly from those which were almost agreed at Taba, a few short years ago. Compromises will be reached on the right to return and Jerusalem.

The biggest obstacle to this settlement is the lack of trust on both sides. In Israel, there is fear that a Palestinian state will be used as a base for further deadly attacks on its citizens. On the Arab side, there is fear that Israel will never agree to a viable Palestinian state, that it will not withdraw from most of its settlements on the West Bank and that it will never agree to a just peace.

On one level, these fears and disagreements can only be resolved by governments and statesmen, in what is called the peace process. Yet on another level, the opportunity for the ordinary individual is immense. If the underlying problem is lack of trust, then surely everything possible should be done to build trust. And here, the ordinary individual can certainly play his or her part.

If it can be established and demonstrated that Jews and Arabs can live and work together, on equal terms, surely this can go a long way towards the creation of the trust which is so essential to the creation of peace.

The only place where Jews and Arabs have the opportunity to live and work together now is in the state of Israel. Israel’s Arab citizens account for one-fifth of its population. Israel’s Declaration of Independence calls on “the Arab people living in Israel to play their part in building the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its institutions”.

What we here in the UK can do is to help Israelis fulfil these aspirations, to support projects which encourage Jews and Arabs to live and work together and to build that degree of trust between the two communities which can be so important in the wider context of peace.

Most Jewish and Arab children in Israel, for example, are educated in separate school systems. In the Arab system, Arabic, English and Hebrew are mandatory subjects and are integral to the curriculum. Yet, despite Arabic being an official state language, Arabic is not an essential component of the Jewish school curriculum. Generations of Jewish schoolchildren are thus unable to converse with their Arab neighbours.

With the support of the Haifa and Karmiel municipalities and the Ministry of Education, the Language as a Cultural Bridge programme seeks to close this communications gap. It was preceded by the development of a unique curriculum combining Arabic language and Arab culture, and teacher-training seminars.

In February 2005, a pilot programme was implemented in 15 Year 6 classes in Haifa and Karmiel. In this current school year, this is being implemented in Years 7-9 classes in 100 schools in the Haifa district, schools in the north, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the south, and in several kibbutzim and agricultural communities across Israel.

Living and working together is another crucial element in building trust. Encouragingly, there are many involved in this field, but to be effective their efforts need to be co-ordinated. Since 2001, the Coexistence Network has offered support for and co-ordinated activity in this area.

Valuable lessons have been derived from the Northern Ireland experience. The events of October 2000, in which 13 Arab Israeli citizens were killed by Israeli policemen, severely undermined mutual trust. Prompted by the State Commission of Inquiry into the October tragedy, the
Community Police Programme was created to re-establish non-hostile relations between the police and the Arab community by adopting a culturally sensitive and equitable approach towards Israel’s Arab citizens. The programme has benefited from the advice of Sir Ronald Flanagan, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary. As a result, 20 Israeli police commanders visited Northern Ireland to learn from its community police model.

Economics has a part to play, too. The Poverty Report compiled by the National Insurance Institute in 2004 found that over 40 per cent of the country’s Arab citizens were living in poverty, compared to 14.9 per cent of the country’s Jewish citizens. One contributory factor is the low employment rate of Arab citizens.

Based on the belief that the integration of Israel’s Arab population into the Israeli economy will enhance the socio-economic status of Israel’s Arabs as a whole and act as a platform for Jewish-Arab co-operation, the Economic Development Venture was developed in 2007. This is aimed primarily at promoting the employment of Arab women and their integration into the Israeli labour market. It seeks to promote fair representation of Arab employees in the civil service, increase their participation in the government and expand employment of Arab academics in the private sector.

Every one of these initiatives — and many more — are supported, and in many cases were originated by, the Abraham Fund, of which I am a patron. The Fund works in partnership with the government and government agencies. It is a non-partisan, non-profit organisation. It is, every day, making a difference.

The building of trust between the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel is not something that can be achieved overnight. It will take time, determination and hard work. Nor will it, of itself, guarantee peace in the Middle East. But by helping to break down one of the major obstacles to the achievement of peace, it can make a significant contribution towards the achievement of that objective.

Michael Howard, former Conservative Party leader, is MP for Folkestone & Hythe. The UK Friends of the Abraham Fund Initiatives launched this week. Its website is

Last updated: 4:36pm, June 6 2008