ASSAD ASSAD was, perhaps, the most unlikely name in the March Likud party internal elections. The sight of Mr. Assad, a Druse Arab from Israel's north, accompanied by gowned Druse clerics, seemed like an anomaly at the convention of a party known for its hard-line Zionism. But as out-of-place as he seemed, Assad won the 29th spot on the Likud's candidate list, virtually guaranteeing him a seat in the next Knesset.
Assad's victory was no fluke. With an election coming, Israel's mainstream parties have discovered the Israeli Arab population and are courting it. Combined with the recent emergence of independent Arab parties, this election may center around one battle - the hearts and votes of the Israeli Arab community.
Israeli Arabs, or Palestinians living in Israel's 1967 borders who are Israeli citizens, number 800,000 - 18 percent of the population. In terms of voting power, Arabs could control 14 seats in the 120-seat Knesset (although currently there are only six Arab members of Knesset). With such a voting bloc, says Avner Regev, a columnist for the daily Al Hamishmar, "it will be the Arabs who will decide who will be the next government, or even who will be the next prime minister."
Mr. Regev and other observers of Israeli-Arab politics feel this is so because of a dramatic political stirring in the Israeli Arab community. For many years, Arabs living in Israel have accused Israeli administrations of treating them as second-class citizens, and of giving them less municipal and educational funding than their Jewish counterparts.
Until recently, these accusations were never translated into political action. But the last 10 years have seen a change. Says Nawaf Massalha, an Arab member of Knesset with the Labor party: "Frustration, on the one side, with the establishment, and the Lebanon war and the intifadah on the other, have led to an awakening in the Arab community."
Realizing this awakening, Israel's Zionist parties are organizing and campaigning in a community they had previously neglected. The Likud party, for example, which in the 1988 election received 6 percent of the Arab vote, is trying to woo the Druse vote with the election of Assad to its Knesset list. Moreover, it is trying to fortify its presence in the Arab sector by opening up party branches in 18 Arab districts.
The opposition Labor party, which for so long took Arab support for granted, saw its share of the Arab vote drop from 21 percent in 1984, to 17 percent in the 1988 election. In an attempt to renew its appeal in the Arab community, Labor is guaranteeing the 20th spot on its Knesset candidate list to a Muslim Arab, and the 30th spot to a Druse.
But the Arab political awakening also provides Israel's Zionist parties with a new element to contend with - independent Arab parties. The 1988 elections to the Knesset witnessed, for the first time in Israel's history, the participation of Arab parties: the Democratic Arab Party and the Progressive List for Peace. Each won one seat in the Knesset. This year they may create a United Arab list called "Alliance."
WHILE it is unclear how successful a United Arab list could be in the elections, the "Alliance" leadership has declared its willingness to participate in a governing coalition with Labor. Says Abdel-Wahab Darawshe, a former Labor member of Knesset who broke away to form the Democratic Arab Party in 1988, "We are ready to join in a coalition with Labor; we are ready to support them from the outside. We want to participate."
For both the Zionist and the Arab parties, many observers say, success in the Arab community hinges on the future of the Israeli Communist Party, now called the Democratic Front for Peace. The Communist Party had traditionally enjoyed favored status in the Arab sector. It was the only party that accepted Arab members and offered scholarships to Arab students. In the last election, the Democratic Front took 34 percent of the Arab vote, twice the number received by Labor.
The fall of communism, though, has not only meant the end of the party's scholarship program, but has also dealt a blow to its image in the Arab sector. Many believe the Democratic Front will suffer a severe setback in the next election. This anticipated vacuum may be filled by the Zionist and the Arab parties.
For the Israeli Arab community, the next election will be one with more options than ever before. This may not resolve issues facing Arabs in Israel. But it signals a major change - the Israeli Arab is moving into the political mainstream.