TEL AVIV — In many ways these are the best and worst of times for Israelis. A decade ago their main fear was an invasion from and through Syria, but with the Syrians fighting among themselves they are no longer seen as a major threat. The Islamic State, or ISIS, has, in a sense, helped them. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that all those fighting in what one retired high-ranking Israeli officer insists on referring to as the territory that was once Syria are focused on killing each other rather than destroying Israel, so Israelis can focus on other threats.
Israelis, of course, continue to see Iran as the long-term enemy. Unlike President Obama, they believe the Iranians when they say they want to destroy Israel and kill the Jews who live there. That scares them both because it is now clear that their sworn enemy will get the bomb the mullahs want and because the recent U.S. agreement with Tehran frees up billions of dollars to finance terrorist attacks on Israel.
Terrorism can take many forms, from rocket attacks to the infiltration of fighters through the sorts of tunnels the Palestinians have constructed in the past to the individual knife attacks that have been taking place in recent weeks. None of these pose the sort of threat that was posed by Syria in past years or that may be developing from Tehran, but they are disruptive and force the Israeli government to continue to expend billions on its military and security force.
Surprisingly, however, when one talks to Israeli officials they don’t spend as much time as one might expect worrying about an internal threat from those Muslims living within her borders. Israel’s 10 million inhabitants include something like 1.8 million Muslims, most but not all of whom are Israeli citizens. They mostly live in their own neighborhoods and face conflicting pressures from their neighbors, co-religionists and the Jewish state in which they live and work. It can’t be easy, but in most ways they know they are better off in Israel than if they were under the control of the Palestinian Authority.
This is particularly true in terms of their standard of living. Family income in Israel averages around $35,000 a year for both Jewish and non-Jewish residents, while Muslims in Ramallah earn about $13,000 a year and those in Gaza subsist on something like $3,000 a year. Many Muslims in Israel own their own businesses and live in neighborhoods or villages virtually indistinguishable from those housing their Jewish countrymen except for the many mosques one sees as one drives by Muslim areas.
They are, while living just about as well as their Jewish neighbors, exempt from the mandatory military service required of Jewish men and women. A few volunteer, but the family and community pressure they experience keeps most from doing so. In a psychic sense at least, many sympathize with the plight of their Palestinian brothers and sisters, but that sympathy rarely translates into action against Israel itself. There are a few small pockets of active support for the Palestinian cause, but few Israeli Muslims seem anxious to risk the lives they lead as Israeli citizens.
Two incidents over the past few years illustrate this. The Israeli-Muslim village of Umm al-Fahm backs up on the Palestinian Authority’s lands and was the scene of demonstrations a year and a half ago as protesters attacked Israel and declared they would rather live under Palestinian-Muslim rule. Israel’s foreign minister, perhaps in frustration, announced that they could have their wish and proposed that the boundary around the town be redrawn to take it out of Israel and cede it to the Palestinians.
That proposal didn’t go down well with the town’s Muslim residents, who filed petitions within hours challenging the very idea that they be turned over to the Palestinian Authority. As Israeli citizens, they said they could not simply be abandoned or have their citizenship canceled. They made it clear that regardless of what a few demonstrators might be demanding they had no desire to leave Israel and its benefits — both economic and in terms of the security they enjoyed.
It should come as no shock to Americans that politicians seeking to curry favor with one group or another are willing to play to their constituents’ worst instincts. There are 14 Muslim members of Israel’s Knesset and one fishing for votes recently in heavily Muslim Nazareth tried to stir up the city’s residents in support of the Palestinian cause. The effort backfired, however, when Nazareth’s Muslim mayor called him out, suggesting that his constituents wanted more than anything to live peacefully with their neighbors.
This is not to say that there aren’t real tensions within Israel. There are undoubtedly some among the nation’s 1.8 million Muslims who Israel can count on as real enemies, and a few who might be recruitable by Israel’s terrorist enemies, but Israeli authorities, while keeping an eye on the nation’s Muslim enclaves, don’t seem overly concerned. As always, they most fear those who would invade, tunnel their way in or in other ways infiltrate the country.
• David A. Keene is opinion editor at The Washington Times.