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Arab Mayors Stage Protest over Unfulfilled Promises

Claiming the government has failed to fulfill budgetary pledges to Israel’s Arab sector, Arab mayors have mounted a sit-in demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.

At the same time, together with striking municipal workers, they have in effect extended the summer vacation of 300,000 Arab schoolchildren by keeping classrooms closed as a gesture of protest.

But they have so far refrained from using their most effective weapon: withdrawing parliamentary loyalty from the government of Yitzhak Rabin.

Paradoxically, this latest showdown between the government and the leaders of Israel’s Arab population comes at a time when the Arabs hold unprecedented political power.

The narrow-based government coalition commands a bare majority of 62 votes in the 120-seat Knesset and relies for a more comfortable margin in blocking the opposition on the five votes of Arab parties: three from Hadash (Communist) and two from the Arab Democratic Party.

Three more Arabs are Knesset members for Labor and Meretz.

The Arabs may be caught in a bind. A vote against the coalition might be too effective; the only alternative is a return of the right-wing government.

Thus, they can draw their parliamentary gun. They might even aim it at the government. But they would probably think long and hard before pulling the trigger.

Arabs within Israel proper are distinguished from the Palestinians in the administered territories in enjoying full political rights. They are full- fledged Israeli citizens who are entitled to vote and to sit in the Knesset; some even serve in the army.

Also unlike their brethren in the territories, their demands are focused not on political issues but on “civil equality,” a code phrase for increased budgets. Their request is for more than $63 million to cover development budgets in Arab towns and villages.

To back up their demands, Arab mayors have raised a tent at the Rose Garden opposite the Prime Minister’s Office and say they will stay there until the government honors budgetary commitments undertaken by the previous Likud administration.

They have rejected an offer of an interim payment of more than $25 million, pending review of their needs.

The two Arab parties in the Knesset pledged their support to the government after Labor undertook, in writing, to meet their demands regarding the peace process and “equal rights” for the Arab population.

The Arabs seem satisfied so far with the peace process, which is now centered on a round of negotiations in Washington. But demands for increased funding are facing the same difficulties as before.

Newly appointed Finance Minister Avraham Shohat is insisting on a tight budget.

The Arab mayors promised this week that they would not fold up their protest tent until their demands are met. They are planning a mass demonstration at the same site next Sunday.

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