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Arab League reaches out to Israeli Arabs

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Israeli Arab Knesset member Ahmed Tibi attends an Arab Israeli demonstration in Jerusalem in January 2003. (Brian Hendler)

Israeli Arab Knesset member Ahmed Tibi attends an Arab Israeli demonstration in Jerusalem in January 2003. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, April 8 (JTA) — “It’s just a symposium, nothing more,” Knesset Member Mohammad Barakeh said. But the title of a conference to be held at the end of the month in Cairo — “The Strategic Congress for Ties between the Arab World and the Arabs of 1948″ — implies much more. “The Arabs of 1948″ is a euphemism often used in the Arab world for those who did not flee during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, and who became Israeli citizens. With its locutions to avoid using the word “Israel,” many Israeli commentators say the moniker reflects a continuing Arab unwillingness to recognize Israel’s legitimacy. The phrase “strategic congress” implies that the meeting will be more than just a sociological and cultural analysis of the relations between the Arab world and the 1 million Israeli Arabs. In addition, the identity of the hosts — the University of Cairo and the Arab League, an organization of 22 Arab member states, including “the State of Palestine” — is significant. On the face of it, this should be a festive occasion for Israel’s Arabs, reflecting a relative maturation in Arab political discourse and Israeli Arabs’ growing credentials in the Arab world as vocal advocates for the Palestinian cause. Yet the planning has been marred by a dispute over the invitations for Israeli Arab leaders. For years, Arab political discourse has overlooked Israeli Arabs or scorned them as collaborators with the Zionists. When Nazir Majali, an Israeli Arab journalist from Nazareth, visited Cairo last fall, he was astonished to find out how many Egyptians were unaware of the fact that almost every fifth citizen of Israel is an Arab. As he was waiting for a meeting with Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, Moussa’s secretary, who knew Majali was coming from Israel, asked if he was Arab. When Majali said yes, she replied, “Then you must be a Jewish Arab.” The secretary was not an exception. Majali, Israeli correspondent for the London-based Arabic daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, encountered similar comments from a policeman at the airport, a Lebanese tourist at a restaurant and a receptionist at his hotel. “I returned from Egypt hurt and sad,” Majali told JTA. “Is it that the beloved country of the Nile does not know us at all?” For many years, the Arab world’s neglect of Israeli Arabs was intentional: The Arab minority in Israel has integrated into Israeli society much better than many would care to admit. In recent years, however, the Israeli Arab population has grown radicalized and its leaders have emerged as strong and vocal advocates of the Palestinian cause, even urging constituents to reject any Israeli component to their identity. “Things are improving,” Majali said of the community’s engagement with the larger Arab world. “They get to know us better, and they respect us more.” Indeed, the Cairo conference should have been the ultimate proof that Israeli Arabs will be embraced by the Arab world. The organizers invited, inter alia, Knesset members Barakeh, Dr. Ahmad Tibi, Azmi Beshara, Jamal Zahalka and Talab al-Sanah. Also invited are public figures such as Sheik Ibrahim Sarsour, a key figure in the Islamic Movement in Israel; Majed al-Haj of Haifa University; and Abdul Wahab Darawshe, a former Knesset member. But some public figures in the Israeli Arab community feel the organizers have missed the point, and Beshara and Zahalka are considering boycotting the event. They are critical of the decision to send invitations on a personal basis, rather than via the Follow-Up Committee, an unofficial representative committee that comprises Israeli Arab Knesset members, mayors and other public figures. “We have a problem with the invitation: It’s unacceptable that even the Arab League does not recognize the Follow-Up Committee as the representative body of the Arabs in Israel, Zahalka told JTA. Zahalka’s reservations reflect ideology as much as protocol. He and Beshara are pan-Arabists who for years have sought connections to the Arab world, antagonizing many Israeli Jews in the process. Beshara, of the Arab nationalist Balad Party, was particularly criticized for his visits to Syria and meetings with Hezbollah leaders, at which he expressed support for military efforts against Israel. “This is the first time that the Arab League initiates a conference in our cause,” Zahalka said. For that reason, Zahalka says, the event should be an explicit embrace of Israel’s Arabs and their institutions. “They should have invited the official representatives of the Arab population, and not suffice with random invitations,” Zahalka said. Shawki Khatib, chairman of the Follow-Up Committee, refused to comment to JTA, but he too has expressed frustration over the way the conference was organized. Knesset member Yuval Steinitz of the Likud Party, chairman of the Knesset Security and Foreign Affairs Committee also has a problem with the invitations — for a very different reason. “I grant you that there should be a connection between the Arabs of Israel and the Arab world, but for the connection not to be hostile, the invitations should come through the government of Israel,” Steinitz told JTA. Otherwise, Steinitz suggested, “if the invitations apply only to opposition elements, without official elements, this is an illegitimate and subversive connection.” That may be why the organizers want to play down the historic significance of the conference. Though the Arab League traditionally is hostile to Israel, organizers may want to avoid a head-on collision on a matter that could be interpreted as interference in internal Israeli affairs. The man behind the conference is Sa’id Kamal, a Palestinian who serves as the league’s deputy secretary general. Moderate Israeli Arabs convinced him that the conference could deepen the alienation between Israeli Arabs and the Jewish majority, so Kamal gave the conference a softer, academic touch by bringing in the University of Cairo. “Beshara’s line is only one. There are others who believe that there are lines which should not be crossed,” Majali said of Beshara’s encouragement to Israel’s enemies. “This is a serious conference, and one should stress that the Arab League does not conflict with the unique status of Israel’s Arabs in the Arab world.” Majali was among the organizers of a delegation of Israeli Arabs to Auschwitz last fall. He said that Moussa gave his blessing to the Auschwitz visit to demonstrate that Arabs were not indifferent to the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust. Barakeh, of the Communist Hadash Party, said he will go to Cairo regardless of what his rivals from Balad do. “The only purpose of the conference is to take a different approach to the Arabs of Israel and to exchange views,” Barakeh told JTA. “Of course we will discuss our problems as a discriminated minority, but it is no different that Israeli Jews going to America and glorifying the occupation.” Thus, even before the curtain was raised in Cairo, the conference already has forced Israeli Arabs to do some soul-searching, trying to balance their feelings of allegiance to the Arab world with their responsibilities as Israeli citizens. “We are a part of the Arab world,” Barakeh said. “The PLO already is represented in the Arab League, and we don’t want to be left out once there is a Palestinian state — but at the same time we don’t want to pull out all the stops.”

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