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Israel’s Arab Minority As Arab Legislators Grow Radical, Public Feels Its Needs Are Ignored

Despite growing criticism of their legislators within the Israeli Arab public, Arab political parties are presenting the same faces for the Knesset in Israel’s upcoming elections.

Given the legislators’ radical stances — which many say are widening the rifts between Arabs and Jews in Israel — President Moshe Katsav warned leaders of the Arab community on Sunday that they are losing their grip on their own population.

“There is growing radicalization within the Arab sector in Israel,” Katsav told a gathering of public leaders at a meal marking the end of a day of Ramadan fasting. “In a year or two they may not listen to you, they will lose all restraint.”

Most Israeli Arab voters are not concerned with the radicalization of their leaders, but rather with the fact that they simply do not deliver the goods: They do too little to improve the poor living standards of their people, critics say, while devoting most of their time to supporting the Palestinian cause.

“Of course we are concerned over the Palestinian plight,” said Mustafa Asfur of Haifa’s Technion — Israel Institute of Technology, “but there should be a ladder of priorities, and they should first take care of our problems.”

“Had I been a Knesset member, I would first have taken care of my own population,” said Farhan Shleibi, a Bedouin tourism operator in the Negev. “Only then would I deal with the others.”

Despite such voices, however, the Arab Knesset representation is likely to change little after the Jan. 28 elections.

In internal party elections recently, Mohammed Barakah was re-elected as chairman of the Communist Hadash Party.

Azmi Beshara will head his own Democratic National Alliance Party — known by the acronym of Balad — and Islamic Movement lawyer Abdel Malek Dahamshe will head the United Arab List.

Among their constituents, however, frustration with the Arab legislators spans the political spectrum.

Speakers at a rally in the Galilee village of Deir al-Assad last month openly accused the Arab Knesset members of contributing to the deterioration of Arab-Jewish relations in Israel.

The legislators’ “incitement” after Israeli Arabs rioted in sympathy with the Palestinian intifada in October 2000 “has seriously damaged the interests and reputation of the Arab community,” poet Rifat Assadi said.

Some of the speakers criticized the Arab legislators for identifying with Israel’s antagonists — Syria, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Osama bin Laden and Hezbollah — instead of looking after the interests of their constituents.

They referred, for example, to Beshara’s frequent visits to Damascus and declarations of support for Hezbollah; Dr. Ahmed Tibi’s close ties to the Palestinian Authority and its president, Yasser Arafat; Muhammad Kana’an’s public endorsement of bin Laden; and the support offered by Barakah and Taleb a-San’a for attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers.

“The Arab public is politically heterogeneous,” said As’ad Ghanem of Haifa University’s political science department. “The rally probably reflects a third of the Arab voters who have traditionally voted for the Zionist parties, and are likely to do so even more with Labor under the leadership of” dovish Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna.

Ghanem said he agreed in principle with the criticism of Arab legislators, but argued that Israel’s political system does not allow them to express themselves effectively on issues other than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At the other end of the political spectrum, members of the nongovernmental organization Abna al-Balad met last month in a coffee house in Nazareth and called on Israel’s 580,000 eligible Arab voters to boycott the elections.

“The Arab public is disappointed with its present leadership and has no longer any trust in the Zionist parties,” said movement leader Mohammad As’ad Kananeh, a former security prisoner.

Abna al-Balad, a small, radical leftist movement, intends to launch an anti-election campaign of newspaper ads and radio jingles. Its main criticism is directed at the Arab legislators who, the group says, “lack authority and influence.”

Arab Knesset members are concerned that the call to boycott the elections will resonate. It has the support of the powerful northern branch of the Islamic Movement, which already refuses to grant Israel the legitimacy implied by voting.

It also has a precedent: Most Arab voters agreed to boycott the 2001 prime ministerial elections to protest the response of the Labor-led government to the October 2000 riots.

Former legislator Abdel Wahab Darawshe told JTA recently that surveys indicate that only 55 percent of Arab voters will vote in January.

Ghanem called the figure “misleading.”

The figure ignores the approximately 20 percent of eligible voters who have not yet decided whether to vote, he said. Eventually, he predicted, some 65 percent to 70 percent of Arab voters will go to the polls — slightly lower than their historical numbers.

Ghanem himself is unlikely to be among them. Had the Arab parties made an effort to unite on one Knesset list, he probably would have voted, he said.

However, with legislators insisting on maintaining four separate Arab lists, Ghanem said he sees no reason to vote and will probably stay home.

A low Arab turnout “may weaken the leftist camp,” he acknowledged, “but since the left has not really proven itself vis-a-vis the Arab population, so be it.”

Abna al-Balad wants the Arab population to set up its own, separate Parliament, but all Arab legislators reject the idea, fearing a separatist trend.

“Such a Parliament will only be good for speeches,” Barakah said. “It will be ineffective, because political influence can be achieved only in the Knesset.”

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