Behind the Headlines: Israeli Arab Seated on High Court, 17 Years After Idea is First Floated
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Behind the Headlines: Israeli Arab Seated on High Court, 17 Years After Idea is First Floated

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For the past 20 years, Abdel Rahman Zuabi served as a judge with the Nazareth District Court.

He never hid his disappointment that he was not appointed president of that court, yet he often dreamed of getting a higher appointment — to Israel’s Supreme Court.

That day came last week, when for the first time since the establishment of the Jewish state, an Israeli Arab took a seat on the nation’s highest court.

The appointment of Zuabi, 66, is quite dramatic, given the often fragile relations between the Jewish and Arab sectors of Israeli society.

But the move does not necessarily indicate that Israel’s Arab minority is being integrated into mainstream Israeli society, according to at least one member of the panel responsible for Zuabi’s appointment.

Zuabi’s rise to the Supreme Court only highlights the lack of more Arab appointments to Israeli courts or in the broader civil service, says Amnon Rubinstein, a minister in the former Labor government and a former dean of the Tel Aviv University School of Law.

The sensitiveness surrounding the appointment is underscored by the fact that the idea was first publicly entertained, but never acted upon, 17 years ago.

Indeed, at that time, Zuabi himself was mentioned as a possible candidate.

But it was a politically charged idea. More recently, David Libai, the politically liberal justice minister in the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who suggested Zuabi for the high court, failed to carry through on the proposal.

One of Israel’s leading jurists, Yusuf Haj Yihya, quit at the time as a judge in the Tel Aviv District Court, protesting that “an Arab will never be appointed to the Supreme Court.”

Zuabi was born in the village of Sulam near the northern city of Afula. He was the first Arab graduate of the Tel Aviv School of Law and Economics, which was later incorporated into Tel Aviv University. One of his classmates at the time was the flamboyant army chief of staff, Moshe Dayan.

Contrary to most Arab public figures, Zuabi does not hide the fact that he is a secular Muslim. Although he does not pray regularly and has never made the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, he does fast during the month of Ramadan and refrains from drinking alcohol.

During his years with the Nazareth District Court, Zuabi earned the reputation of being particularly hard on criminals involved in drug use and trafficking. He once sentenced a drug dealer to 20 years in jail — the heaviest sentence ever handed down in Israel for a drug offense.

Zuabi first shot to national prominence when the then-Supreme Court president, Meir Shamgar, appointed Zuabi to serve on the state commission probing the 1994 Hebron massacre, in which Jewish settler Dr. Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinians during prayers at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Ironically, Zuabi’s first appearances on the Supreme Court last week coincided with the fifth anniversary of the Hebron slayings on the Jewish calendar.

When forming the panel five years ago, Shamgar needed an Arab jurist on the commission for political reasons.

And Zuabi was just the right person: a respected and experienced Arab jurist – – and someone who had always stressed that he was a proud citizen of the State of Israel.

Zuabi had another qualification: He was a member of Israel’s largest Arab clan.

Numbering some 15,000 people, the Zuabis had several clan members who rose to prominence in Israeli society.

After the 1967 Six-Day War, Zuabi’s brother-in-law, the late Abdel Aziz Zuabi, became the first Arab to serve as deputy health minister. It was the highest rank to be reached by an Israeli Arab.

Another clan member, Seif a-Din Zuabi, had served for many years as the mayor of Nazareth.

When Abdel Rahman Zuabi was appointed to the Shamgar Commission, it was generally assumed that he would keep a low profile.

Observers said Zuabi, already eager for a seat on the Supreme Court, would be unlikely to anger Shamgar, whose approval was needed for the appointment.

But Zuabi surprised everyone.

The criminal law expert who had long been the nemesis of drug dealers became the panel’s toughest questioner of the Hebron-area settlers and of several senior army officers who found it difficult to explain how Goldstein had managed to enter the Muslim prayer hall and carry out the killings.

“Zuabi dared say things that had never been said before in the Supreme Court,” said Avigdor Feldman, one of Israel’s top lawyers. “He stressed the absence of the rule of law by posing excellent and thorny questions.”

Indeed, some of Zuabi’s questions were so thorny that he drew Shamgar’s ire. In one instance, when Zuabi asked witnesses whether it was true that settlers believe that Arab property is free for the taking, Shamgar interrupted and tried to balance the picture by asking how many times Arabs had thrown stones at settlers that month.

But Zuabi stood his ground. “When I sit on the commission,” he explained at the time, “I forget that I am an Arab, and I am only trying to find out the truth.”

Hebron’s settlers did not like him from the beginning of the commission’s proceedings, particularly after a newspaper article quoted him as saying that the “brutal party in the territories are the settlers.”

Although Zuabi promptly denied the quote, an appeal was introduced before the high court seeking Zuabi’s removal from the commission.

Among those supporting the appeal, then-Likud Knesset member Tzachi Hanegbi said at the time that Zuabi’s reported comments proved “he cannot fulfill his utmost duty as a judge.” The appeal was later rejected.

By a stroke of irony, it was Hanegbi, who now serves as justice minister, who last year formally approved Zuabi’s appointment to the Supreme Court.

Word of his appointment prompted no protests.

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