News Analysis: Knesset Appointment Highlights Role of Arabs in Israeli Government
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News Analysis: Knesset Appointment Highlights Role of Arabs in Israeli Government

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A controversial appointment backed by Prime Minister Ehud Barak has spotlighted some key questions regarding the relationship between the Jewish state and its Arab citizens.

Some of the questions — such as whether Israeli Arabs are treated as second- class citizens and whether Israel’s government is fully representative of its Arab population — have previously bobbed to the surface, particularly at election time.

But now, with Barak suggesting that an Israeli Arab legislator be appointed to the Knesset’s security-sensitive Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, there is the new question of whether such an appointee would be loyal enough to his country to sit on the prestigious panel.

The appointment, which would be the first of its kind in Israel’s history, is seriously being considered by Barak, who is well aware that his political debt to the Arab electorate has not yet been paid off.

In the May elections, Israel’s Arabs voted overwhelmingly for Barak over former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after legislator Azmi Beshara, Israel’s first Arab citizen to run for premier, dropped out of the race two days before the vote was held.

Although the three Arab parties represented in the new Knesset hold 10 seats – – the same as the leftist Meretz Party, which is represented in Barak’s Cabinet — the premier avoided bringing any of their members into his government.

As part of his justification for ignoring the Arab parties during his final coalition negotiations, Barak made it clear that given the important peace- process decisions that would confront his government, he wanted a government with broad-based support from Israel’s Zionist parties.

Lacking such support, the premier would have to depend on the support of the Arab parties in any Knesset votes on the peace process — which could in turn discredit his initiatives among the broader Israeli public.

As a result, Arab legislators felt they were treated like outcasts during the coalition negotiations. None of their members were tapped for the Barak government — even though at least one key coalition partner, Meretz leader Yossi Sarid, had promised during the election campaign that he would not join a government without an Arab minister.

Prior to floating the idea about the appointment, the only gesture the new administration made toward the Arab electorate has been a plan to appoint an Arab legislator as chairman of a Knesset subcommittee on drug abuse.

It was little wonder, then, that Arab legislators, smarting from what they felt were repeated slights, abstained from the Knesset’s July 6 vote confirming Barak’s new government.

In addition to the abstentions, some of the lawmakers heckled Barak during his speech at the swearing-in ceremony.

The resentment felt by Israel’s Arabs — who feel that they are repeatedly shortchanged when government services are doled out, particularly in the field of education — was reflected in the comments of an Arab columnist, Riad Ali.

“The government of Mr. Barak is a racist government,” Ali wrote. “True, Barak did not promise in the election campaign to appoint an Arab minister, but he, and senior members of his party, let the Arab public in Israel understand that finally they were to be included in an Israel that seeks change.

“Well, the change has not taken place, and it is the same lady with a different dress.”

Meanwhile, the planned appointment to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee has elicited some surprising reactions.

Ami Ayalon, the head of the Shin Bet domestic security service, said he sees no problems with the appointment.

The opposition, more predictably, reacted angrily.

Likud legislator Gideon Ezra, a former deputy head of the Shin Bet, declared that he would boycott committee meetings attended by any Arab member.

Another Likud lawmaker, Uzi Landau, the outgoing chairman of the committee, said he opposes the proposal not because of the nationality of the appointee, but because he objects to having anyone sit on the panel who has not served in the army and who refuses to accept the definition of Israel as a “Zionist, Jewish and democratic state.”

The army service qualification he mentioned would exclude virtually all Arab legislators from the committee, since only one has a military background – – Saleh Tarif of the Labor Party, a Druse who served as an army officer.

For his part, Tarif expressed satisfaction that the barrier of appointing Arabs to the committee is being removed.

Just the same, he regretted that no Druse — meaning himself — had been appointed to Barak’s Cabinet.

“The Druse, despite their contribution to the security of the state, have become a marginal element in the State of Israel. Therefore, the Druse must re- evaluate their attitude toward the state. From now on, their way is open to [joining] Arab parties and the Islamic Movement.”

Oddly enough, Beshara, who demanded that Israel be a “state of all its citizens” during his campaign for prime minister, opposes the idea of an Arab legislator serving on the committee.

While conceding that the move is a positive one, he is nonetheless concerned that it will give legitimacy to the demand that Israeli Arabs serve in the military — which he opposes.

Moreover, he added, delicate security issues that come up during committee proceedings could put any Arab Knesset member serving on the committee “in a difficult situation.”

At the same time, the legislator who serves alongside Beshara as a member of the National Democratic Alliance, Dr. Ahmed Tibi — formerly the adviser on Israeli affairs to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat – – enthusiastically supports the initiative.

But there is little surprise here, considering that he first raised the idea.

“Anyway, every Arab in Israel has a file” held by the Shin Bet, Tibi said wryly. “An Ahmed and Mohammad is just as eligible to serve in the committee as anyone else.”

The current favorite to be named to the committee is Bedouin legislator Talab El-Sana, a member of the largest Arab party, the United Arab List, whose main supporters are members of the Islamic Movement. The party is likely to elect him for the job.

The idea of appointing an Arab to the committee may have little effect on the negative attitudes of Israeli Arabs toward the Jewish state.

Recent opinion polls have shown a sharp rise in the level of Arab alienation.

A study conducted before the elections by the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace at Givat Haviva showed that only one-third of Israel’s Arabs identify themselves as “Israelis.”

Moreover, the number of Arabs who deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state increased to 18.4 percent, compared to 6.8 percent four years ago.

As part of this disaffection, Arab legislators recently announced that they would seek admission to the Arab League.

Since the 22-member league accepts only independent countries, the announcement was largely an act of protest. But it reflected a growing trend that Barak would be wise not to ignore.

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