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Political spotlight trains on Israel's Arabs

By Ned TemkoStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 13, 1984


An Israeli election that otherwise decided little has boosted the political stock of Israeli Arabs - the many thousands of non-Jewish Palestinians who stayed put during the violent birth of the Jewish state 36 years ago.

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The election has, at least for now, put the issue of Israeli-Arab rights on the political agenda - and into the electoral calculations - after decades of frequent neglect.

Two wildly different politicians - both of whom came close to being barred from running in the election - are chiefly responsible.

The first is American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose violently anti-Arab rhetoric centers on the premise that Israeli survival depends on making the state truly ''Jewish.'' The Arabs - whether inside the original borders of Israel or on the occupied West Bank of the Jordan and the Gaza Strip - should somehow be persuaded to leave, he says.

The second figure is an intense Israeli-Arab lawyer from the seaport of Haifa , an advocate of equal rights and opportunities for Arabs and Jews inside Israel , and, ultimately, of Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza.

He is Muhammad Miari. Along with like-minded Israeli Jews, he formed a new party - the Progressive List for Peace (PLP) - and won two of the parliament's 120 seats. Rabbi Kahane's Kach party won one seat.

Israel's pro-Arab - and pro-Soviet - communists retained their four seats. Generally backing the Labor Party over the Likud bloc in parliament, the communist Rakah party has functioned more as a decorative safety valve for Israeli-Arab political frustration than as a meaningful actor on the national stage.

The ''Arab vote'' in the recent election - roughly 200,000 - accounted for about 10 Knesset seats, six of them for the PLP and communists, and the remainder for Labor and former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman's new centrist Yahad party. This is especially significant given that the election denied both the main parties - the incumbent right-wing Likud and the opposition Labor - anything near a 61-seat majority.

Between them, Mr. Miari and Rabbi Kahane have received more public attention here since the election than either of the main parties.

In Kahane's case, this has taken the form of nearly unanimous condemnation from mainstream politicians of what they term unbridled and dangerous racism.

In Miari's case, the consensus response has been concern that he and the communists jointly garnered an unprecedented 52 percent of the Arab vote - chiefly at the expense of Labor.

Related concerns have surfaced in the Israeli news media:

* Miari's entry into electoral politics - challenging not only Labor but the traditional dominance of Arab politics by the communists - included an unprecedented, open vying among Arab politicians for support from the Palestine Liberation Organization.

* Both the PLP and the communists are, in the Israeli political lexicon, ''non-Zionist.'' Neither party opposes the existence of Israel. But both see the state as decidedly less Jewish than do all mainstream Israeli parties. Both want establishment of a Palestinian state next door.

* Finally, Miari's run points to a new political activism among Arabs - whether inside Israel or in the occupied territories captured in 1967. The West Bank and Gaza Arabs, unlike those in pre-1967 Israel, are not Israeli citizens and don't vote. But the PLP platform has raised for many Israelis the specter of greater political coordination among Palestinian Arabs throughout Israeli-held territory - against a background of a sharp increase in Arab voter turnout, which had been declining for many years.