Israel welcomes first Muslim minister

Flanked by two bodyguards courtesy of the Israeli secret service, Raleb Majadele cruised through the corridors of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, as admirers and adversaries stopped to wish the country's first Arab Muslim minister well on his first day on the job.

"Mabruk," congratulated a parliamentary security guard in Arabic. "Mister Minister," began Effie Eitam, a far-right lawmaker and Jewish settler, as he shook Mr. Majadele's hand. "Good luck."

Even if decades overdue for a country that touts itself the lone democracy in the Middle East, the appointment of the Labor Party lawmaker to the cabinet was celebrated as a symbolic abolition of a barrier to full equality for the country's one-fifth minority. Majadele is awaiting word on what ministerial portfolio he will be assigned.

But with Jewish-Arab relations polarized over the November appointment of Cabinet Minister Avigdor Lieberman – a nationalist politician who wants to redraw Israel's borders to exclude hundreds of thousands of Arab citizens – it remains to be seen whether the political integrationist can ease the yawning socioeconomic gaps and dismantle the institutionalized discrimination that embitters his constituency.

"The question is does this really represent a turning point in the question of inclusion or exclusion?" says Elie Rekhess, an expert on Arab Israelis at Tel Aviv University and the director of the Adenauer Program for Jewish Arab cooperation. "What does he have to offer?"

Since the appointment of Salim Joubran as the first Arab Muslim to sit on Israel's Supreme Court in 2003, Majadele's entrance to the cabinet is the most dramatic example of integration for a largely segregated minority community.

Majadele said he aspires to use the cabinet post to "correct bias, and to demand equality for Arab citizens of Israel."

Ironically, the strongest opposition to the appointment came from the nine Knesset members from nationalist and communist Arab political parties. Majadele was assailed for joining a government that wreaked destruction on Lebanon and Gaza, while at the same time legitimizing Mr. Lieberman's presence in the cabinet.

"This government should have been boycotted because of Lieberman," says Parliament member Jamal Zahalka, a lawmaker of the National Democratic Assembly party, "just like the world did to Austria when [Jörg] Haider entered" the cabinet.

But the new minister rejected the notion that the controversial politician should make sitting in Israel's government beyond the pale.

"There is no such thing as a racist government. There are right wingers in the government, and on the street there's racism, but you can't call Israel's government racist," says Majadele.

"There is discrimination and distortion rooted in the budget priorities. There needs to be someone strong enough and influential enough to say, excuse me, we are missing 2,000 classrooms.... Until now, no one has ever sat there, and saw to it that that would be his test."

A member of a Zionist political party, Majadele made common cause with an ideology not his own in return for influence with the political establishment, he says.

Indeed, while Labor and its Arab "satellite" parties once attracted 60 percent of Arab voters, today that level has dropped to 10 percent. Most of those votes now go to the nationalist parties that take a much more confrontational line toward the government.

"Majadele is in an inferior position to the nationalists, in the sense that visits to Damascus make headlines much more than the call for further integration and the accommodative path," says Mr. Rekhess. "In many ways he is swimming against the current of public opinion in his own constituency."

Many Arabs who oppose the appointment criticized Majadele as being used by Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz to buy Arab votes in an upcoming party leadership vote. But some Arab civil rights advocates recognized the symbolic importance of the appointment even if they had low expectations for practical change.

At a time when Lieberman calls for transferring Arab towns to a future Palestinian state, "It's important to have Arabs all over state institutions and to show that we are here and we don't plan to disappear," says Jafar Farah, director of the Haifa civil rights center Mossawa.

A recent position paper by Israeli Arab leaders have further complicated relations with Jews by calling for autonomy for the 20 percent minority, and by calling into question whether Israel's desire to be "Jewish" and "democratic" was a contradiction in terms.

A Tel Aviv University poll found 86 percent support among Arab citizens of Israel for the controversial demand in the position paper to recover ownership over Arab villages confiscated during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Calling the proposal "academic," Majadele seemed to imply that the notion of Israeli Arabs returning to the abandoned villages is unrealistic.

But when questioned about Arab criticism of Israel's national anthem, which romanticizes the Jewish longing for national liberation in the "Land of Zion," he acknowledged that he would like to see a new anthem more reflective of "universal values."

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