Behind the Headlines: Not All Israeli Arabs Cheer Appointment of Druse Minister

Only in Israel would a government minister refrain from singing the national anthem. Saleh Tarif, the first Arab appointed to the Cabinet in Israel’s history, refused to sing Hatikvah during an event at the Tel Aviv fairgrounds at the end of an intensive week of struggle within Israel’s Labor Party over whether to join the national unity government.

Standing among his proud, singing friends in the Labor Party, Tarif kept his mouth shut.

“Do you really think I could stand there and sing, `So long as still within our breasts the Jewish heart beats true?’” Tarif asked during an interview with JTA. “It is the Jewish anthem, it is not the anthem of the non-Jewish citizens of Israel.”

It took the Arab citizens of Israel almost 53 years before they could finally have their own person in the Cabinet — even though they are 18 percent of the population. It was an impressive political achievement, but it could not have come at a more tense moment between Israel and its Arab citizens.

In the past five months, relations between the Jewish State and its Arab minority reached an all-time low, as Israeli Arabs rioted in solidarity with the first days of the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and police killed 13 Arabs in ensuing clashes.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was one of the first to phone his congratulations to the newly elected minister in Tarif’s Galilee village of Julis. Tarif will be a minister without portfolio, responsible for Arab affairs.

But many among Israel’s Arab population doubt whether Tarif really represents them.

Tarif, 47, is a member of the Druse community, a secretive religious sect derived from Islam. Some 100,000 Druse live in 18 villages in the Carmel, Galilee and Golan.

Like their 300,000 brethren in neighboring countries, the Druse are ethically Arabs. However, most of the Druse in Israel allied themselves with the Jewish state as early as Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. They perform compulsory military service, just like Israeli Jews.

Throughout the years, the Druse have stressed their unique identity, disassociating themselves from the Muslim and Christians among Israel’s million-strong Arab population.

But now, after Labor’s Central Committee elected Tarif as minister, he is stressing his Arab ethnicity rather than his Druse religion.

“I was well aware of the fact that many among Labor’s leaders treated the Druse and Arab members of the party rather as a decoration than as real colleagues,” Tarif told JTA the day after he was elected, “and I thought it was time to test our grass-roots support.”

The Central Committee “did not support me because I am an Arab,” Tarif said. “They elected me as an Israeli, because they thought I was fit for the job.”

Tarif is married and the father of four. He advanced to the rank of major in the Israel Defense Force, and went straight from military service to being elected mayor of his village.

As the nephew of the late Sheik Amin Tarif, the legendary spiritual leader of the Druse, Tarif quickly climbed up the Labor Party ladder and became a Knesset member in 1991.

He was elected to prestigious Knesset committees such as the Security, Foreign Affairs, Interior and House committees. His Hebrew is impeccable.

In recent years, Tarif has worked on developing relations with leaders of the Palestinian Authority.

“I definitely intend to serve as the mouthpiece of the Arabs of Israel,” Tarif said. “It is high time that someone speaks for them along the Cabinet table.”

After demanding for years that an Arab be named to the Cabinet, many Israeli Arabs distanced themselves from Tarif.

“He does not represent us, but rather Sharon and his government,” said Mohammed Barakeh, a Knesset member from the Communist Hadash Party.

“Tarif’s election is a personal achievement,” said Knesset Member Talab a-Sana of the United Arab List. “But it is more a dirty trick of the Labor Party, which tried to cover its sins toward the Arab population by electing a minister without portfolio.”

Dr. Nazir Yunis, a heart surgeon at the Hillel Yaffe Hospital in Hadera and a disenchanted political activist, said he could think of many others who could better represent Israeli Arabs.

“Tarif is a compromise, and not necessarily the best compromise,” Yunis said.

On second thought, Yunis added, “perhaps there is no other way, perhaps we need to settle for a Druse minister before we get a real Arab one.”

Tarif conceded that it was “not easy” for him to join a government that is considered “rightist.” However, he promised that he would fight for his views and would not adjust his positions to please his new boss.

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