Appointment of Israeli Arab Creates Political Controversy

When an Israeli Arab was appointed to a senior municipal post in Haifa, the move ignited a controversy between the coalition partners in the Israeli port city’s government.

It also illuminated the struggle among Israeli Arabs for greater political power.

The incident comes as a recent survey, conducted by Elie Rekhess of Tel Aviv University, confirms that Israeli Arabs — many of whom identify themselves as Palestinians — are more concerned about achieving “genuine political equality,” as the poll put it, than with the political aspirations of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The story began earlier this month, when the Meretz Party appointed Ghassan Abu Warda to head the city’s education department.

The move appeared to be innocuous. After all, Arabs make up 10 percent of Haifa’s 250,000 population, Jews and Arabs have peaceably coexisted in Haifa since the establishment of the state of Israel and Meretz usually holds the education portfolio.

But the council, led by Mayor Amram Mitzna of the Labor Party, rejected Abu Warda, saying that he was “unfit for the job.”

Meretz quit the coalition that governs the city in protest, accusing both Mitzna and the council of racism, a charge endorsed by at least two Israeli newspapers.

“The basic reason for keeping the job from Abu Warda was that he is an Israeli Arab,” the Israeli daily Ha’aretz said in an editorial.

The Jerusalem Post, a politically conservative English-language daily, said, “To believe that a member of a minority cannot faithfully represent everyone’s interests, majority and minority, is pure clannishness and profoundly anti- democratic.”

In the wake of the stinging criticism, Haifa’s mayor announced that he would appoint an Arab member of the city council, from the predominantly Arab Hadash Party, to the education slot — and would ask for the council’s approval on Feb. 1.

The incident came soon after the release of the survey results. The survey, which was based on face-to-face interviews with 600 Israeli Arabs in October and November, showed that:

41 percent of Israeli Arabs consider “genuine political equality” as the most important issue;

32 percent give preference to improvement of social services, such as education and health;

8 percent gave the most importance to “the national identity of Israel’s Arabs”; and

only 5 percent prioritized the struggle to establish a Palestinian state.

These figures are the consequences of the peace process and its effect on the local Arab population, said Rekhess, who heads the university’s program on Arab politics in Israel.

While Israeli Arabs feel less identification with the Palestinian issue — the Israeli component of their identity is getting stronger — “this does not mean that the process of Palestinization has disappeared,” he said.

Instead, Rekhess said, the results demonstrate that Israeli Arabs are fighting for increased political power for themselves.

One example of this increasing political assertiveness can be found in the Knesset.

Hadash Knesset member Azmi Beshara recently proposed a bill that would guarantee Arabs proportional representation on the boards of government-owned corporations — similar to guarantees that are given to women in Israel.

Currently, only 15 out of 1,500 directors of these corporations are Arabs.

Beshara, who already has declared his candidacy for prime minister in the next elections, has been working hard to show his constituency that he can be effective.

Some 44 percent of Israeli Arabs believe that parliamentary work is the most effective way to achieve equality, according to Rekhess’ survey.

But, in reality, despite a record number of 11 Arabs in the 120-member Knesset, they have less influence than they did under the previous Labor governments, when prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres leaned on their support.

Some 81.5 percent of Israeli Arabs believe that a unified Arab party would be best for their interests, according to the survey. But more than 50 percent admitted there was little or no chance for such a party to emerge.

Israeli Arabs are simply too diversified to allow for a single party.

But a majority of Israeli Arabs — 73 percent — would favor an Arab candidate for prime minister, according to the survey.

All of the Arab participants at a recent symposium in Tel Aviv called to analyze the survey agreed that an Arab candidate for prime minister was necessary even if he has no chance of being elected — if only as a signal to the Labor Party not to take Arab voters for granted.

One theory is that an Arab candidate would force a runoff, presumably between the Labor and Likud candidates, and that would enable Arab voters to press for stronger commitments from the two main parties.

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