Two Arabs who help run Israel

Parliamentarians share a hometown and the goal of Palestinian rights.

He wants to fight the system. She's trying to work within it. He's a political firebrand. She's a quiet crusader for equality.

Ahmed Tibi and Hosnia Jabara were born in the same year in this same town - a half hour northeast of Tel Aviv - 41 years ago. They went through the same schools. And they are now freshmen in the same Knesset, Israel's parliament.

But they followed very different paths to Jerusalem. Dr. Tibi was elected last month on the slate of a new nationalist Arab party that wants Israel to forgo its character as a Jewish state and become a state of all its citizens.

Ms. Jabara joined Meretz, a secular left-wing party that's characterized as Zionist, though it favors Palestinian rights and eventual statehood, and became the first Arab woman to be elected to the Israeli legislature.

While Jabara's seat has been welcomed as a victory for the country's most underprivileged and underrepresented citizens, Tibi's presence in the Knesset already has him embroiled in conflict. For the past six years, he's been a paid political adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

He even negotiated on behalf of the Palestinians during peace talks at Wye Plantation in Maryland last fall.

To Israeli Jews who still harbor doubts over Arabs' loyalty to the state, Tibi's rsum is a particularly egregious case in point. By serving Mr. Arafat at a time when Israeli and Palestinian interests have seemed so diametrically opposed, he was, in effect, working for the enemy.

Now, he wants to be assigned to one of Israel's most confidential clubs: the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, whose members are regularly given top-secret briefings on Israel's most sensitive military, strategic, and security matters.

Right-wing Israeli politicians say that's out of the question. They charge that Tibi's alliance with Arafat rules out his eligibility to hear top-level updates by Israeli intelligence officials.

Tibi says that he should be allowed on the committee as an Israeli citizen democratically elected to the Knesset. And on this - as on all matters of equality for Jews and Arabs in Israel - his former classmate, Jabara, agrees.

But they concur on little else, especially on the way to achieve some of the same goals: peace with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and equal rights for Arabs in Israel.

Tibi and Jabara epitomize the ongoing identity crisis of the country's 1 million citizens who are Arab - about 1 in 6 Israelis: Whether to identify primarily with Palestinian nationalism, or to focus on getting a fair share of the pie as an ethnic minority in the Jewish state.

Working from outside, or within

Even the language they speak is different. In interviews with both Knesset members, he talks about representing Palestinian Arabs in Israel, and she talks about eliminating the gaps between Jews and the "Arab sector," the terminology Israelis have preferred for decades.

Tibi says his position as a Palestinian Arab who holds Israel citizenship made him uniquely qualified to serve as an adviser to Arafat. Tibi was introduced to the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Tunisia in 1984. Tibi was fascinated by Arafat, and Arafat was eager to hear the politically astute Tibi's insights on Israeli politics.

He's remained in contact with Arafat since, going on the Palestinian Authority's payroll after the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. Tibi resigned from his position in Arafat's office so he could run for the Knesset.

"No one can demand that I sever my ties with Yasser Arafat. On the contrary, I have an extra tool to help achieve peace between Palestinians and Israel, and to bring equality between Jews and Arabs in Israel," Tibi says at an interview in his home office, where two aides sit reading newspapers, one in Hebrew, one in Arabic. Over his desk is an enlarged photo of his young daughter being greeted by Arafat in Gaza.

Outside, the streets leading to his house are unpaved. Though Taibe is middle-class by Israeli-Arab standards, it is a world away from the nearest Jewish town: Kochav Yair, recently ranked as one of Israel's five most affluent locales.

As lush as a planned California suburb, that young town is home to Ehud Barak, Israel's premier-elect, as well as several other members of the political and military elite, some of them living off of generous army pensions.

Tibi blames Taibe's poor infrastructure on lack of funding from the Israeli government - and on mismanagement and nepotism in Arab-run city hall. But he suggests that his neighbor Jabara - who comes from one of the town's most powerful families - is fooling herself if she thinks she can solve Arab problems within Jewish political parties.

"I cannot accept any attempt to vanish the national aspect of Arabs in Israel," says Tibi. "We're not Zionists. I'm not sure that those [Arabs] who are engaging in these Zionist parties are affecting anything. Their influence is very limited."

Jabara argues that in reality, quite the opposite is true. While Arab parties are always outside the coalition government, leaving them virtually powerless to pass legislation, she'll be a member of the governing majority, and may have more direct influence.

Scaling a gender barrier

"If I am in an Arab party, I can't ask my fellow member to give me my rights, because he is trying to get the same thing I am. But if I'm in an Israeli party with Jews and Arabs, I can get the Jews to fight alongside me for the same things as a team," Jabara says of her decision to join Meretz, which she's been a member of for 12 years.

A progressive party that fights for civil rights and social justice as well as peace with the Palestinians, Meretz has also given more top slots to women than any other party: four of its 10 seats are filled by women.

Active for years in local women's groups, Jabara was drafted by Meretz leaders to run on their slate.

She considered joining the all-Arab parties, she says, but they didn't value electing a woman to office. In Israel's parliamentary system, parties submit a ranked list to voters, knowing that only those placed at the top of the list will get a seat.

"They wouldn't give women realistic places on their lists," she says."I saw they wouldn't give me a chance."

Still, Jabara - a mother of three who trained as a physical therapist - was endorsed by many male leaders. She gained support from the heads of several major clans, who hold strong influence over the way their relatives vote.

"I wanted to prove that this stigma that Arab men wouldn't support a woman is wrong," says Jabara, enjoying her access to the Knesset dining room on the first day of session Tuesday.

"I hope that the Arab parties will put women in more important slots in the next election. I don't want to be the first and the last."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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