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NEWS ANALYSIS Israeli Arab candidate for premier gets little boost from his community

JERUSALEM, April 12 (JTA) — The first Israeli Arab to run for prime minister of the Jewish state is getting little support from the nation’s Arabs. Azmi Beshara is making history by running in the May 17 elections. But his fellow Israeli Arab politicians are concerned that his campaign to become premier may help the one candidate they want to lose the race — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Theoretically, Israeli Arab voters could not ask for anything more than to have one of their own represent their interests by running for prime minister. Just the same, the leaders of the two leading Israeli Arab parties — Hadash, a formerly Communist party, and the United Arab List — have called on their followers not to vote for Beshara. While some observers maintain that this opposition is motivated by political jealously, the Arab parties say they are concerned that Beshara’s candidacy may damage the chances of the Labor Party candidate, Ehud Barak, to unseat Netanyahu. In the 1996 election, some 95 percent of Israel’s Arab electorate voted for the then-Labor candidate, Shimon Peres. This time around, the Arab vote is being courted by Barak and Yitzhak Mordechai, the leader of the Centrist Party, known in Hebrew as Mercaz. Netanyahu, a political realist, would settle for the same 5 percent of the Arab vote that he received in 1996. If none of the candidates wins a clear majority, there will be a runoff vote June 1 between the two top vote-getters. According to opinion polls in recent weeks, the gap between Netanyahu and Barak is marginal. The Israeli daily Ma’ariv published over the weekend the combined result of several polls, involving 4,400 respondents, and came up with a by-now familiar result: Netanyahu receives 36 percent of the votes in the first round, Barak gets 35 percent, with 10 percent of the voters still undecided. In other words, every vote — including those from the 1-million- member-strong Israeli Arab community — will count. Moreover, if Mordechai and Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, who is running for prime minister as the leader of a right-wing coalition, drop out of the race — as some pundits predict may happen — Netanyahu could be elected in the first round of voting. Israeli Arab leaders are hoping that Beshara, too, will drop out of the race — a move that would bolster the chances of Barak and Mordechai. Interestingly enough, Beshara has already indicated that he may do just that — “if there are very good reasons,” he said. Beshara, 43, knows full well what his prospects are. “Of course, I know that I have no chance” of winning the May 17 vote, he told JTA. Rather, he views his campaign as a chance to publicize his vision regarding the “character” of the state. If Israel belongs to all of its citizens, then an Arab prime minister would be just as valid as a Jewish one. He also views his candidacy as a vehicle to help his fellow Arabs. “I am simply trying to use my political weight to attain civil rights” for Israel’s Arab population, said Beshara. “I am not asking for privileges, but rather for obvious rights.” Born in Nazareth, Beshara was attracted to communist ideology. After studying in Berlin during the 1980s, he became a professor of philosophy at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. After abandoning his communist leanings, he was elected to the Knesset in 1996 as the head of an independent ticket, a-Tajamu-Balad, Arabic for the National Democratic Alliance. It was shortly after becoming a legislator that he first decided to run for the premiership, believing that he could go after the same votes that would otherwise have gone to a Jewish candidate. If he does decide to withdraw from the race prior to the May elections, it will only be after he has sought commitments for his constituency from some of the other candidates, particularly from Barak, who is likely to draw most of the Arab vote. His tactic reverses the one previously used by Israeli Arab politicians: His negotiations on behalf of his people are coming before the elections, rather than after them, when coalition talks are held. In the meantime, whether or not he drops out of the running, Beshara is attempting to give his candidacy as much legitimacy as possible. He is refraining from making revolutionary calls — such as the abolishment of the Law of Return, under which Jews worldwide have the right to settle in Israel. Instead, he is repeating some of the themes he has sounded while in the Knesset, such as a demand for educational autonomy for Israel’s Arabs — which he said would be not unlike the autonomy of the Jewish religious educational system — and a call for proportional Arab representation in Israel’s civil service. According to Eli Rekhess, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv University who also serves as a consultant for the Abraham Fund for Jewish-Arab Coexistence, Beshara’s candidacy can be perceived as both a momentary political move and a historic turning point. His campaign is historic “because it is the first time that an Arab political figure has chosen this way to express the frustration of the Arab community, whose electoral numbers increase, and yet its political influence decreases. For 50 years, they have remained at the political margin,” Rekhess said. But the “historic significance of the move is somewhat weakened by the fact that none of the other Arab parties support Beshara’s candidacy,” he added. Indeed, the only Israeli Arab leader to support Beshara is Dr. Ahmed Tibi, formerly Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s adviser on Israeli affairs. Beshara and Tibi have formed a joint list to run for the Knesset and to advance Beshara’s candidacy for prime minister. Their alliance is surprising, considering that for years they were bitter political enemies. But with polls showing that they have a better chance of winning election to the Knesset if they run together, the two joined in a political marriage of convenience, merging Beshara’s National Democratic Alliance with Tibi’s recently formed Arab Movement for Change. When he announced that he was running for the Knesset, Tibi resigned as Arafat’s adviser and hoped that the Palestinian leader would support his candidacy. But Arafat, far from supporting Tibi, has sent word to the Israeli Arab political community not to endorse Beshara. He, like most Arab leaders in Israel, does not want to do anything that may help Netanyahu’s re-election chances.