Arabs to be Israel's swing voters?

Their issues come to the fore as they mark 'Land Day' and have firstcandidate for prime minister.

From the Kassems' olive grove, the faint crackle of artillery sounds like popcorn popping. Not far from here, the Israeli army is honing the skills of its soldiers in a closed military zone. Part of it is made up of land that used to belong to villagers in this predominantly Arab enclave of Israel.

Mahmoud Kassem says he lost five acres of his farmland when the army took about 3,000 acres of land from these fertile hills. After Arab protests against the land expropriations turned violent last September, the army agreed that the land still belonged to the villagers on paper, and that they would be allowed to cultivate it for a designated part of the year.

But to Mr. Kassem - and for thousands of other Israeli Arabs who came out to mark their annual "Land Day" last week - it's still as good as stolen land.

Land - and the limits Israel has put on access to it - remains one of the most sensitive issues for the country's approximately 1 million Arab citizens. It will have a deep impact on how they vote in Israeli elections May 17.

"They make me feel like a foreign citizen in my own land," says Kassem, as his wife and children pick herbs that will later be transformed into cooking spices. "We'll vote for any candidate who agrees to give us what we want, which is equality. I want them to give us a written agreement that they won't take any more land."

Foremost among the goals for Israeli Arabs are an end to discrimination against them at home and a fair peace deal for their Palestinian relatives in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. To that end, Arab political parties say they'll throw their support to the prime ministerial candidate that offers them the best deal - including the first appointment of an Arab to a government Cabinet position.

Arab candidate for prime minister

But one member of Knesset, Israel's parliament, says Arab priorities won't figure prominently on the agenda unless an Arab candidate runs for prime minister. Azmi Bishara announced last week that he will seek the top office - the first Arab ever to do so.

But his candidacy - as well as the recent formation of another Arab party to add to the existing three - is fueling concerns that disunity could harm Arab interests and hamper their goals to elect a left-wing premier who is keener on Israeli-Arab peacemaking than is current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At 18 percent of the population, Arabs have become a key voting bloc in elections. "The Arabs can determine who will be the next prime minister," says Eli Rekhess, director of the Program on Arab Politics in Israel at Tel Aviv University.

Though they are inclined to vote for the left wing, their ballots are not a sure thing for any candidate. In May 1996 elections, Israeli Arabs were still angry over then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres's handling of tensions in south Lebanon. Arab leaders told their community to cast blank ballots.

They cast some 15,000 blank slips of paper and many others simply didn't vote - a huge impact in a race where Mr. Netanyahu beat Mr. Peres by fewer than 30,000 votes.

Now, there are fears that Mr. Bishara's candidacy will make it harder for the Labor Party's Ehud Barak to win. Since five candidates are seeking office, a runoff round between the top two contenders is scheduled to be held June 1 - a contest that polls show will likely be between Mr. Barak and Netanyahu.

Arab leaders say that after Bishara has campaigned against both major candidates, telling his supporters that all Jewish parties have failed them, many disenchanted Arab voters won't bother to vote a second time.

"We don't want to waste any votes, any power, whatsoever. We want to invest that to choose a new prime minister from the peace camp," says Abdul-Wahab Darawshe, a veteran Knesset member from the Arab Democratic Party, a secular left-wing group. "I am afraid that even 1 or 2 percent of votes lost on Bishara will prevent Netanyahu from being defeated," he says.

Bishara brushes off suggestions that his candidacy will keep the hawkish government in power. He acknowledges that he won't make it to the runoff but says he is running to make a point - much, he says, like Jesse Jackson's run for the US presidency.

"This state should be a state of all its citizens, not a Jewish state alone," says Bishara, a professor of philosophy who has taught at Palestinian and Israeli universities. "If our politicians are totally absent from the election, who will raise issues concerning the Arab minority in Israel?"

But Bishara is not the only one shaking up the Arab electorate. Makram Khoury Machool's message is not your average fare, either.

'Do for themselves'

Seeming to take a note from the black-empowerment movement in the United States, he says that Arabs in Israel should stop looking for government handouts and "do for themselves."

"When I come to them and say we have to do for ourselves, the older politicians don't know how to react," says Mr. Machool, a businessman and journalist who recently launched a political party called The New Arab.

"You have to decide whether you want to be a victim or not," Machool says.

Machool was working as a reporter for Israel's Haaretz paper when the intifadah, or Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, broke out in December 1987.

He is credited in journalistic circles for being the first one to recognize that a larger movement was afoot, not a protest that would be over in a few days, as most initially thought.

Now, he says, he recognizes a larger change inside Israel. Intifadah-like riots here last September, he says, show that relative quiet between Arabs and Jews could explode if relations don't improve.

Machool hopes to win two or three seats on a platform that stresses equality and women's rights. He says 50 percent of his party's top candidates will be women, a rarity in a country where there are few women in parliament and none representing the Arab parties.

According to Sikkuy, a research institute in Jerusalem dedicated to equality among Jews and Arabs in Israel, there are still large differences in income between the two communities. All Arab municipalities fall in the lower half of Israel's socioeconomic index.

And Arab towns and villages, for the most part, have not been allowed to expand outside their original boundaries, leading to overcrowding and housing shortages. Yet the Arab population of Israel is seven times bigger than it was in 1948, when Israel was founded.

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