Special Interview an Historic and Unprecedented Move

As it approaches the end of the 39th year since its founding, the State of Israel has made an historic and unprecedented move — it has appointed a young Israeli Arab to an important and prestigious diplomatic post abroad.

Muhammad Masarwa, a 45-year-old lawyer from Kufer Kara village near Hadera, will be Israel’s next Consul General in Atlanta, a post he assumes next summer. He will be the first non-Jew to head an Israeli diplomatic mission anywhere, and his appointment demonstrated Israel’s confidence in itself and in its 750,000 Arab citizens.

Masarwa is Moslem. He speaks Hebrew with fluency and eloquence, as he does English and Arabic. He heads a successful law firm in Hadera and has often represented the mainstream of Israel’s Arab society at public events. He combines boyish good looks and silvery curly hair with the shrewd intelligence often attributed to his profession.

SHOULD HAVE BEEN DONE LONG AGO

Masarwa is not particularly excited by his elevation to the highest position ever held by an Israeli Arab. “This should have been done a long time ago, in other offices as well. The excitement is over the fact that after much talk something was done,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview after his appointment was announced last week.

Previously the highest position held by an Arab in Israel was Deputy Minister of Health, occupied until the early 1970s by the late Abdul Aziz Zuabi of Nazareth, a Mapam Knesset member. A Druze, Sheik Jaber Muadi, was Deputy Minister of Communications and Agriculture.

But there have been no Arabs in senior positions since 1977. There has been talk recently of appointing an Arab to the Supreme Court, but this has yet to materialize.

“There is no reason why an Arab should not be appointed Director General or Deputy Director General of a government ministry,” Masarwa said.

But he does not favor a “symbolic” appointment of an Arab as a Minister or a Supreme Court Justice just because he is an Arab.

“I believe that Arab citizens of Israel should have an equal opportunity to put forward their candidacy to any civil service opening,” Masarwa said. “Once this is done, I believe that Israel’s Arabs will become full partners to the Jews in Israel and gain the place they deserve in the society.”

ARABS FACE ‘TECHNICAL LIMITATION’

He is convinced there are plenty of Arabs capable of filling such jobs. But they face a “technical limitation” — the condition often demanded by Israeli employers, public and private alike, that only veterans of the Israel Defense Force be hired.

Israeli Arabs are not permitted to serve in the IDF for security reasons. But Masarwa believes this is often used as a pretext not to employ Arabs. “One should do away with this barrier,” he told the JTA.

Masarwa began his public life in 1963 as secretary of the Arab Student Union at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. At that time, there was a campaign to abolish the military government which had been in charge of Israel’s Arab population since the war for independence in 1948. Masarwa was active in that campaign.

In 1976, he became the first — and youngest — Arab elected Mayor of his village when the system of direct elections was instituted. He held office for two years. He was elected Mayor again in 1983. Last May he resigned, in compliance with a rotation of power agreement, and now serves as Deputy Mayor.

Masarwa was not affiliated with any political party until Ezer Weizman invited him to join his new Yahad Party before the 1984 Knesset elections.

He was sixth on Yahad’s list, but the party won only three Knesset seats. When Yahad merged with the Labor Party last month, Masarwa officially became a Laborite.

It is believed that Masarwa’s appointment to Atlanta was due in large measure to Weizman’s influence with the Foreign Ministry, headed by Labor Party leader Shimon Peres. He was one of four candidates considered for the post.

Masarwa says he and Weizman “have a lot in common, both on local issues and on Israel’s foreign and peace policies.” He does not see any possible conflict of interest between his private views and the official policy of the government he will be representing.

REFLECTS THE ISRAELI MAINSTREAM

“My views reflect the Israeli mainstream, and they were well known to those who appointed me to the job,” he said. Although he has no previous diplomatic experience, Masarwa has a native diplomatic finesse.

He adroitly avoids such sensitive and emotionally charged questions as the demand for an independent Palestinian state which is shared by a majority of Israeli Arabs. For the record he said: “The Foreign Service, and the Foreign Ministry included, strive toward peace with the Arab countries, toward solving the Palestinian problem. This can be done through a number of venues.”

On the controversial issue of an international conference for Middle East peace, Masarwa observed that: “Presently on the agenda is an international umbrella for peace talks. This is accepted by both the Arab countries and the Palestinian leaders.” He made a point of not mentioning the Palestine Liberation Organization.

“Nothing is guaranteed,” he added. “We shall try different ways to reach some progress on the course to peace.”

At least outwardly, Masarwa appears untroubled by the possibility that Palestinian propaganda in the U.S. might depict him as a traitor. He also has no qualms about his ability to communicate with the large Jewish community in Atlanta and the southern region of the U.S. that his Consulate covers.

“I think that I will achieve greater credibility because the person representing the State of Israel will be an Arab,” Masarwa said. He will go to Atlanta next summer with his wife, Hitam, and their three children, Amir, 14, Bashir, 10, and Nazir, seven.

Masarwa said he has not yet decided whether as the new Consul General of Israel he will attend all local Jewish events. “I have not yet decided if I will attend Yom Kippur service. I will follow my conscience,” he added.

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