Political spotlight trains on Israel's Arabs

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.

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.

Miari is not alone in predicting that the next election will award yet further votes to the PLP, whose main source of support seems a rising generation of better-educated and more politically aware Arabs.

The demographics of Israel stand to increase Arab electoral influence over the long run. About 17 percent of the more than 4 million people in pre-1967 Israel are Arab. Counting the occupied territories, the figure is closer to 40 percent. And a relatively higher Arab birthrate means that relatively larger numbers of Arabs than Jews will be reaching voting age over the next decade.

The main significance of Miari's Knesset run is that it was made at all. He tried to do so once before, in 1965, but was banned. This time, the country's multi-party Elections Committee tried to do the same to both him and Rabbi Kahane, but was overturned by the Israeli High Court.

''What Miari did by successfully running was to make latent trends visible,'' comments prominent Israeli-Arab journalist Anan Safadi.

For years, Mr. Safadi notes, the established parties - whether Labor, Likud, or the communists - ''took the Arab vote for granted.'' But particularly given the close outcome of the Labor-Likud race in last month's elections, ''every vote counts now.'' Miari has ensured that ''in future, if not immediately, Israeli parties will have to take into serious consideration the importance of Israeli-Arab votes.''

Reflecting past neglect of the Israeli-Arab vote, various pre-vote polls in recent months did not even include that element.

The ''Arab parties'' themselves will continue to suffer from the political mainstream's refusal to join in a coalition with any ''non-Zionist'' group. But the name of the game in the next election - which could come far earlier than the traditional five years given the inconclusive outcome of the July voting - will be for the main parties, notably Labor, to try to win Israeli-Arab support from Miari. The communists will be doing much the same.

None of this means that establishment of a Palestinian state will get serious national attention, since a huge Israeli majority opposes that option. But festering internal issues related to Israeli Arabs will likely get more serious attention.

Israeli officials note that the now roughly 715,000-strong Israeli-Arab community - including the more pro-Israeli and pro-Likud Druze population of nearly 70,000 - has fared at least as well economically and educationally as have Palestinians who fled in successive Mideast wars to such states as Syria or Lebanon.

But compared with Israeli Jews, the Arabs still lag economically. They do less well in the job market. And since - except for the Druze - they don't serve in the Israeli Army, they lose out on service-related housing and other state benefits.

''The overall issue of the Israeli Arabs' place in our society has to be resolved,'' says a prominent right-of-center Israeli politician.

He, like other mainstream political figures, abhors Rabbi Kahane's views, but he hopes Kahane may have served to raise a genuine issue: ''The need to resolve the dichotomy between a Jewish state and a sizable minority of non-Jews.''

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