ISRAELI Arabs - nearly 1 million Palestinians whose families remained within Israel after its creation in 1948 and have Israeli citizenship - are set to play a pivotal role in the Israeli elections May 29.
With a vested interest in retaining the economic and civil benefits that come with being Israeli citizens - but with sympathy for the hardships of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank - they could emerge from the elections as power brokers.
In a surprise decision last weekend, the Islamic Movement, a group that represents the moderate face of Islam within Israel, said it would take part in the elections with a slate of candidates from several Arab parties. This raises the prospect that the next Knesset (parliament) will have a larger block of Arabs members that could become indispensible to Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and his Labor Party.
"I am confident that within 10 days we will achieve a united Arab party to contest the elections," says Ibrahim Sarsur, mayor of Kafr Kassem, an Arab village of 13,000 people near Tel Aviv, and a leader of the Islamic Movement. "We have had very positive signals from across the spectrum of Israeli Arab parties," Mr. Sarsur says.
Sarsur spoke after a meeting in Jerusalem Tuesday between Mr. Peres and a delegation of Arab-Israeli leaders that included the leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish.
Sarsur said that the Islamic Movement would seek to lead other Israeli Arab parties in a unified effort in the elections to strengthen the Arab vote.
In the past, Israeli Arabs, who account for nearly one-fifth of Israel's population and 12 percent of the electorate, have been too divided to maximize their clout.
"If the Islamic Movement takes part in the election, it will raise the Arab participation and give them more political influence," says Haifa University sociologist Sammy Smooha, author of several books on Israeli Arabs.
The Islamic Movement, which pursues similar goals to Islamists elsewhere in the Middle East but works within the framework of a democratic system and as loyal Israeli citizens, represents an estimated 30 percent of the Arab Israeli population, according to a survey by the University of Haifa.
"I think the Islamic Movement is the only group with the political clout to be able to dictate unity among the other Arab groups," says Professor Smooha, who conducted the survey.
He said unity was likely between the Islamic Movement, the Arab Democratic Party of Abdul Wahad Dawarshe (which has two Knesset seats), and Ahmed Tibi's Arab Movement for Change party. Mr. Tibi is the representative of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in Israel
Mr. Tibi, on the eve of his new party's first convention last night, welcomed the Islamic Movement's decision to take part in the Israeli elections. He said two other Arab groups - the Progressive Movement for Peace and the Islamic Arab List - had already decided to join forces with his group.
Mr. Peres and his ruling Labor Party coalition are facing a concerted challenge from the right-wing Likud coalition. In the past, Labor has often had to rely on Arab votes to push through decisions on the Israeli peace accord with the Palestinians. That has led to charges from the right that Labor is not able to govern with a Jewish majority alone.
So far Labor has not been forced to draw the Arab parties into its ruling coalition, which would make Labor more vulnerable to such charges.
"If Peres wins the election, his majority could be dependent on the vote of Arab citizens of Israel," says Hebrew University political scientist Gadi Wolfsfeld. "But Peres would bring Arab parties into the coalition only if he had no choice," he says. "The more successful the Arabs are in achieving unity, the more influential they are likely to be in the election."
Hebrew University Middle East analyst Alexander Bligh says that the decision of the Islamic Movement and the new Israeli electoral system, which strengthens the hand of smaller parties through separate voting for prime minister and parliament, could give Israeli Arabs more political clout.
"Their price for participation in the coalition might be to demand the first Muslim Arab cabinet minister in the history of Israel," he says. There are currently three Arab deputy ministers.
Disagreements over Israel's peace accord with the Palestinians had threatened to divide the Arab vote to the point where some of the four seats currently held by Arab groups might have been lost. Now Arab Israelis stand to gain two or three seats.
Another five Arab members of the Knesset represent Jewish parties: three in Labor, one in the left-wing Meretz Party, and one in the right-wing Likud Party.
The residents of Mayor Sarsur's bustling Arab village of Kafr Kassem are far better off than their Palestinian counterparts in Gaza and the West Bank. They enjoy a much higher standard of living, better education, and better physical circumstances. But they also complain that much of their land has been confiscated and that they still lag too far behind Jewish Israelis in education and social services.
Many Arab citizens acknowledge that progress has been made. "Twenty years ago, there were not many Jews who talked about peace. But today more than half are discussing peace, and we feel more accepted," says Omar Issa, an Arab Israeli born in Kafr Kassem, who was among a group of Arab men chatting in an antiquated barber shop there recently.
"But democracy is more important to me than being a Muslim," he says. "The problem is that there are no democratic states in the Arab world."