Peace process has hurt Israeli Arabs, left-winger says

The peace process has been good for the Palestinians — but not for Israeli Arabs, says Avinoam Armoni.

While the Palestinians have gained credibility and money since the historic handshake on the White House lawn three years ago, Israeli Arabs have been lost in the shuffle, the 48-year-old left-wing activist says.

"Funders who used to support Arab volunteer groups feel like they don't need to assist [them] anymore," he says. "They're funding Palestinian groups instead."

As Israel director of the New Israel Fund, Armoni is responsible for monitoring the status of Israeli Arabs — who comprise 18 percent of Israel's population — and making sure they are treated fairly. It is one of several ways the organization pursues its mission for social change.

Born in San Francisco in 1979, the NIF created a partnership between Israelis and North Americans to encourage the growth of grassroots groups devoted to civil liberties, human rights, equality for women, religious pluralism, and coexistence between Jews and Arabs.

The NIF has since granted more than $40 million to 300 organizations. Most of these groups depend on a variety of funding sources. However, those sources have been drying up for Israeli Arabs as more money has been funneled to Palestinian causes, says Armoni, who visited the Bay Area recently to meet with supporters.

"Israeli Arabs feel doubly neglected," he adds. "They were just beginning to get funding [from other organizations] before the peace talks and now they're not."

So Israeli Arabs often turn to the NIF for help "because our message is the same now as it was before the accords began," Armoni says. "The organizations we granted money to became the bridges of dialogue."

Meanwhile, the political climate in Israel since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination has forced Israelis — both Jews and Arabs — to redefine themselves, he says.

"Jew versus Arab" is not accurate or productive language, Armoni says. "It never was."

Instead, he adds, Israeli society is split into two segments — those who support the peace process and those who don't. On one side are Jews, Arabs and Palestinians with a vision of a democratic Middle East; on the other are fundamentalists of all stripes, he says.

"Whether it's the Yigal Amirs or Hamas, there's no room for equality in either of their movements," Armoni says. "They don't share our vision. Their overall goal is control in their way."

Despite the deep divisions in Israeli society, Armoni is quick to dismiss what he calls "cries for a false national unity."

"What unity? Ultra-Orthodox and Labor? Likud and Labor? [Such false unity] would grant a de facto victory for the assassin [of Rabin]," Armoni says. "To have a political unity between Labor and Likud would mean a compromise on the peace process."

Instead, he suggests that each side forge ahead with its political goals.

"Likud has a serious agenda. It plays by democratic rules," Armoni says.

"Likud can't stop the peace process. I said this a year ago. In spite of everything that has happened and regardless of the future, certain pieces of the process are irreversible.

"It [the peace process] can be stalled or frozen, but Rabin's legacy cannot be stopped. We've gone too far."