TEL AVIV, June 29 (JTA) — The setting was serene, academic and quite respectable. Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, Israel’s justice minister, stood at the podium discussing the recommendations of a committee he chaired on implementing recommendations of the Orr Commission, which examined the October 2000 riots in which police killed 13 Israeli Arabs. The occasion was a meeting with civil rights activists and organizations arranged by Sikkuy, an Israeli group promoting civic equality for Israeli Arabs. Lapid agreed that “full equality for Arab citizens was both the right thing to do as well as a vital Israeli interest.” But then it was time to disagree. Lapid switched places with Ida Touma-Suleiman, an Arab women’s rights activist. Touma-Suleiman said she was disappointed with the work of Lapid’s ministerial committee, since most of its members were from the right-wing Likud and National Religious parties and did not consult with Arab leaders during its work, she said. Lapid listened politely for a few minutes, but then the former journalist and TV pundit fired back. “Why did your representatives boycott our committee?” he demanded. “They did not like the members of the committee, so they would not talk to us.” “So make up your mind, “ Lapid said. “Either you boycott us or you cooperate, but don’t boycott and complain.” The exchange reflected a deep problem in the delicate relationship between the government of Israel and the state’s 1 million-plus Arab citizens: mutual suspicion. Arab community leaders — particularly Knesset members and members of the so-called Follow-Up Committee, which represents Arab mayors and civil associations — are disenchanted with the failure of successive Israeli governments to make substantial progress toward equality for Israeli Arab citizens. Moreover, they complain that despite the Orr Commission’s report, things are getting worse. Last year, for example, the government hired only 193 Arab workers out of a total of 4,531 new civil servants. The Orr Commission had recommended accelerating Arabs’ integration into the civil service. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak decided to allocate almost $1 billion to raise the living standards of Israeli Arabs to those of the country’s Jews. But little was done, and the money fell victim to budget cuts in the face of a serious recession. Lapid did not belittle these problems at the recent meeting — but noted, “It is difficult to deal with such a delicate subject if one treats you suspiciously.” He urged Arab community leaders to join with the government and try to help it rather than boycott it. Lapid’s committee also revived the idea of mandating some sort of national service for young Israeli Arabs; rather than doing military service like their Jewish counterparts — which might put them into conflict with other Arabs — they would be able to volunteer in their own communities. “I don’t even want to hear about it,” said Shawki Khatib, chairman of the Arab Follow-Up committee. “First let them give us equal rights, then we can discuss equal duties.” Touma-Suleiman said she has served her community for the past 20 years. “We don’t need the government for that,” she said. That’s why, three and a half years after the October 2000 riots and despite the recommendations of a government-appointed commission, hardly any progress has been made. The trauma is still there, the wounds refuse to heal and mutual suspicion reigns supreme. A recent study by Haifa University’s National Security Studies Center found that nearly 64 percent of Israeli Jews think the government should encourage Israeli Arabs to emigrate. More than 55 percent of Jews view Israeli Arabs as a threat to Israel’s security. The poll comes on the heels of more than three and a half years of Palestinian violence, during which Israeli Arabs have expressed growing identification with the Palestinians and in some cases helped them perpetrate terrorist attacks against Israeli Jews. By and large, however, Israeli Arabs do not acknowledge that their actions, and the fierce anti-Zionist activity of their Knesset representatives, contribute to the Jewish majority’s feelings of suspicion. “The causes for the October events still exist: the occupation, lack of hope that change can be achieved by democratic means and the impotence of the local Arab leadership,” said Dr. As’ad Ghanem, head of the Ibn Khaldun Institute of Social Research, speaking of the Arab anger at Israel that fueled the infamous riots. Some critics say the Orr Commission — appointed when Barak was fighting for his political life and desperately needed the Arab vote — took the politically correct tack of criticizing the government, rather than examining what changes were necessary from the Arab side as well. In any case, Sikkuy has organized a group of senior Jewish and Arab public figures to monitor implementation of the Orr Commission’s recommendations and influence Jewish and Arab public opinion to support full civic equality. Members of the monitoring group are the elite of the civil service — including Yossi Kucik, director general of the Prime Minister’s Office under Barak; Shlomo Gur, director general of Justice Ministry under Barak; Yitzhak Galnour, former director general of the National Insurance Administration; and Arye Amit, former commander of the Jerusalem police. The team is supposed to urge government agencies to work toward greater equality for Israeli Arabs. The advantage for this monitoring group is that it is comprised of people who are very familiar with government bureaucracy and know what’s necessary for change. “I realize that we, too, should be blamed for not having pushed this issue when we were in office,” Gur said, “but it does not change the fact that everyone should do his utmost to change the present situation.” “If we don’t do so,” he said, “this bombshell will explode.”
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