Subdued but not muffled by the colloquy of peace and the exhortations for Palestinian independence in the West Bank, the deeply disturbing question that for three decades has quietly haunted the half million Arabs of Israel is echoing clearly throughout the Jewish state - "Who am I?"
It is a plaintive cry that in the past has welled deep from the divided consciousness of the Israeli Arab only when traumatic events of history have put inner allegiances to their severest tests. The uncounted casualty of Israeli's many wars has been the torn loyalty of the Israeli Arab.
But now, rapprochement between Israeli and her largest Arab neighbor, coupled with the sounds of natinalistic fervor rising from the stony hills of the occupied West Bank, are responsible for a new examination of identity among Israeli Arabs.
Sami Semocha, director of the Arab section of Haifa University's Jewish Arab center, cals it the "Palestinization" of Israel's Arab populatin.
It is, Semocha says, an unmistakable swing away from the "Adaptationist" character of the Arabs who remained in what became Israel in 1948 when 700,000 of theif fellow Arabs fled.
Other scholars in Arabic studies and social scientists call it the politicization of a traditionally pliable and even apolitical segment of Israeli society; a few alarmists call it the radicalization of a potentially dangerous and subversive element in this security-conscious state.
Whatever its name, it is a complex and amorphous trend, one not easily measured by the convenient indicators usually available to Western analysts and not even fully understood by seasoned students of Middle Eastern culture.
Experts also note that the proportion of Arabs in Israel's population is increasing steadily, giving rise to further concern about the politicization of Israeli Arabs.
While public opinion polls are regarded with skepticism in the unpredictable political climate of the Middle East, one recent survey of Israeli Arabs by the Haifa University Arab center has raised eyebrows in the offices of Prime Minister Menachem Begin's Arab affairs advisers and has caught the attention of the commanders of Israel's security forces.
The study, funded by the Ford Foundation, disclosed that 60 percent of all Israeli Arabs do not recognize Israel's right to exist, and that 64 percent of them believe Zionism is a racist movement.
Moreover, according to the study, 75 percent support the establishment of a Palestinian state, and 64 percent favor the abolition of the ingathering of the Jewish Diaspora.
Significantly, however, slightly more than half of the Arabs polied identified themselves as Israeli Arabs rather than Palestinians. The study also confirmed a long-recognized trend that most Israeli Arabs, if given the chance to move to a Palestinian state, would choose to remain in Israel, where they have prospered economically, if not politically.
The dichotomy in which Israeli Arabs live is evident on the walls of the modest but comfortable home of Abdallah Darawchi, headmaster of the public school in Arraba, an Arab village about 10 miles north of here.
Amind proud portraits of his Palestinian ancestors and other trappings of an era of Moslem-dominated Palestine, hangs a color photograph of Begin, leader of the Jewish state to which Darawchi swore allegiance when he obtained Israeli citizenship.
"Yes, I do consider myself a Palestinian, just a Jew considers himself a Jew," Darawchi says. "But for a long time there was only hatred between Jews and Arabs. Now there is more understanding. It is healthier." he adds,in fluent Hebrew.
But what of his Palestinian brothers on the West Bank?
"The essence of the problem is the Palestinians. Any solution without considering the Palestinians is not a solution. I certainly support a Palestinian state, but personally, I prefer to stay here," Darawchi says.
As perplexing as it seems the dual loyalty of the Israeli Arab can be traced throughout Israel's 31-year history, with varying degrees of intensity and ambivalence at crucial periods, according to Benny Gur-Areyh, the prime minister's chief adviser on Arab affairs.
In 1948, after a relatively brief war, the 15,000 Arabs who stayed in Israel found themselves a small minority in an ever-expanding Jewish population, with a different language, a different culture and a different religion.
While there was no serious nationalistic movement then, there was deep resentment, masked by a wait-and-see posture.
"If somebody was building a house and it was only half-finished, he didn't certain they were of their future," Gur-Areyh said.
But by the 1956 war, he noted, any Israeli Arab who had been hoping that armed conflict would erase Israel from the map and restore Arab control of Palestine had begun to lose faith in that dream. This growing awareness of the reality was substantially reinforced in 1967, when in barely six days Israel defeated the armies of the most powerful Arab states and began to take on an aura of invincibility.
By then, allegiance to Israel - cynically but expediently - had reached its peak and pan-Arabism and waned.
Paradoxically, however, the 1967 war also opened the way to a growth of Israeli-Arab nationlism, because for the first time they could cross into the occupied West Bank and discover that their Arab brethen were free from the frustration of dual loyalty.
Through contact with West Bank Arabs, they discovered their national identity all over again, and, along with the residents of the newly occupied territory they began to share a dream of independence.
This gradual tilting of loyalty was also exacerbated by the 1973 Yom Kippur war, which, although won by Israel in the end, resulted in heavy Israeli casualties and saw the presence of Egyptian troops east of the Suez.
"Many Israeli Arabs thought, well, perhaps Israel can lose a war after all," said Gur-Areyh.
In the past six years, the nagging question of national identity has grown even more, fueled by complaints by many Israeli Arabs that they are treated as second-class citizens and - more recently - the lament that if West Bank Arabs deserve full autonomy, why shouldn't the Arabs of Israel?
Dissatisfaction will Israeli citizenship, where it is found among Israeli Arabs, centers on job discrimination, housing, underfunded education, the "Judeazation" of the Galilee - where most Israeli Arabs live - and Israel's program of expropriating Arab-owned land for the development and expansion of Jewish cities and towns.
More than half the Arab population votes rountinely for Communist candidates, not so much out of an adherence to Comminist doctrine as a protest vote against Zionist parties.
Israeli Arab univesity and high school youths are in the vanguard of the protest movement, joining the militant National Progressive Movement and the even more militant considers the Communists too conservative because they participate in Israel'd electroal process.
There are nine Arab members of the Knesset (parliament).
Another measure of rising politicization is the number of arrest of youths on security charges. Last month, Israeli security forces reportedly arrested about 30 Israeli Arab youths on suspicion of subversion, more than twice the number arrested on security charges during all of last year.
At the crux of much of the increased political activity is a fundamental demand that challenges the Jewish character of the state of Israel - a demand the government does not regard as negotiable.
The demand was expressed by a Christain Arab living here, an employe of the Israeli government who preferred not to be named.
"Believe it or not, Arab kids would prefer to stay here and even live under the Israeli flag. But they want to live in a less Zionist Israel a less nationalistic Israel."
Israeli Arabs interviewed randomly invariably complained that all of the government's Arab affairs advisers are Jews who immigrated from Arab states and were hired primarily because they speak Arabic. Some of these advisers, the Israeli Arabs complain, suffered at the hands of Moslem Arabs in their former homelands, and they nurture deep resentment to all non-Jews from Arab states.
To a nation created specifically a haven for persecuted Diaspora Jews - with guarantees of a predominantly Jewish character woven throughout its laws and institutions - the mere suggestion of binationalism is troubling.
Even more troubling to some are the prediction sounded by Moshe Sharon, Gur-Areyh's adviser, that the current Israeli Arab population of 15 percent of Israel's total 3.5 million citizens will climb to as high as 25 percent by the end of the century.
Sharon, who angrily quit Begin's staff last year charging that not enough attention was being paid to Arab affairs by the government, said in a recent interview that he regards the Israeli Arab problem "second or third of all Israel's problems. We have to deal with it sooner or later, and later may be too late."
Gur-Areyh disputed Sharon's pessimsim, however, saying that the Israeli Arabs' birthrate is slowly leveling off, and that if Jewish immigration is boosted to 40,000 or 50,000 annually, the Arab-Jewish ratio will stay about the same.
Regardless of their numbers, however, the Arabs of Israel are certain to continue to press for more political expression and a larger say in what they feel should be a shared state.