News Analysis: Lebanon shellings shake support for Peres among Israeli Arabs

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BAKA EL-GHARBIYA, Israel — A man stood near a group of Israeli Arabs, holding his 3-year-old son and waiting for his turn to speak.

"What you have done in Lebanon is worse than what the Nazis did," he told a visitor to this Arab town in the heart of Israel.

Salah Harzallah, the regional coordinator of the Communist-inspired Hadash Party, an Israeli Arab grouping also known as the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, repeated himself to emphasize the point.

"Yes, it is time that we say it loud and clear," he said. "They are worse than the Nazis."

Abdullah Abu-Moh, an elderly man in the group, disagreed.

"This is exaggerated," he said. "Nothing can be compared to Nazi crimes, certainly not Premier Shimon Peres. But, then again, they haven't done away with the Hezbollah, have they?"

It is unclear just how many Arab residents of Israel felt the wartime crimes of the Nazis were comparable to the Israeli shelling last week of a U.N. base in southern Lebanon that killed at least 75 Lebanese refugees.

But there is no doubt that Israeli Arab support for the ruling Labor Party was shaken by the recent events in Lebanon. This could have a profound impact on the race for prime minister.

"Many Arabs believe that Peres should be punished," said Meretz activist Najib Abu-Rakia. "He cannot take our support for granted. Many of us believe that he can regain our support only once we see him again protesting Israeli violence, at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv — as head of the opposition."

The group, which had gathered here to share views, had feelings of genuine sadness over the unnecessary loss of life in Lebanon and frustration over the impotence of Israel's Arabs to influence the course of events in Lebanon.

"The mourning is in the heart, even if there are no black flags on top of the buildings," said Jalal Abu-Tuameh, mayor of Baka el-Gharbiya.

For Israeli Arab parties competing in the Jewish state's May 29 national elections, the recent events in Lebanon, where Israel's military is seeking to put an end to Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel, provided more ammunition for their efforts to expand their parliamentary representation.

Some 440,000 registered Israeli Arab voters have the potential to elect 14 members of Knesset. Only five seats in the current Knesset are held by Arab parties — Hadash and the Arab Democratic Party.

Hadash, which recently forged a partnership with the National Democratic Coalition, adopted a militant approach, terming last week's shelling of the U.N. base the "Sabra and Shatila of the Peres government," a reference to the massacre by Christian militias of Palestinians in Beirut refugee camps during the 1982 war in Lebanon.

The National Democratic Coalition branded Peres a "war criminal" and demanded that he be brought before the international tribunal in The Hague.

A day after the shelling of the U.N. base, a committee of Israeli-Arab political leaders, including Knesset members and mayors, decided to not meet with Peres until the conflict on the Israeli-Lebanese border ended.

At their meeting last Friday, they also declared a general strike and two days of mourning by Israel's Arab community.

On Saturday, when the strike took place, resentments against the Peres government boiled over, particularly in Nazareth, where Arab youths clashed with Israeli police, resulting in several arrests.

The growing resentments made it entirely possible that the support of Israel's Arabs for the Peres government was about to vanish into the smoke-filled air of southern Lebanon.

Hadash and the Arab Democratic Party attacked the Labor-Meretz government, warning Peres that Israel's Arabs were not in his pocket.

The National Democratic Coalition went a step further, urging its supporters to boycott the voting for prime minister, though it was perfectly clear that this could mean a victory for Likud candidate Benjamin Netanyahu.

Until recently, it was assumed that the Zionist parties, notably Labor and Meretz, would absorb about half the Arab votes and that virtually all the Arab voters would support Peres for the premiership.

Abu-Rakia of Meretz estimated that on election day, 25 percent of Arab voters would cast a blank ballot for the premier in protest.

Asked whether he would boycott the voting for prime minister, Abu-Rakia hesitated for a moment, then said: "I don't know, I am confused."

Even if the Arab parties can draw votes away from Labor and Meretz in the voting for the Knesset, which takes place separately from the ballot for prime minister, they still have a formidable barrier to overcome to achieve the goal of expanding their own Knesset representation.

With several Arab parties contending in the Knesset balloting, there are just too many for any one to win a significant number of parliamentary seats.

Some of the Arab parties recently carried out political mergers in an effort to strengthen their chances at the polls.

In addition to the Hadash-National Democratic Coalition alliance, Knesset member Abdel Wahab Darawshe's Arab Democratic Party merged with the Islamic Movement to form the United Arab Party. Darawshe even agreed to give up his seniority in the list for lawyer Abdul Malek Dahamshe of the Islamic Movement.

Dr. Ahmed Tibi, who has long served as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Israeli adviser, is running at the head of his own party, the Arab Movement for Change.

An even smaller party is the Progressive Alliance, which is run by Mohammad Zeidan of the Arab village of Kafr Manda in the Galilee.

There are hardly any ideological distinctions among the various parties: All stress equal rights for Israel's Arab citizens, along with the demand for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Wadie Abu-Nassar, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University, believes that despite current resentments, 40 percent of Israeli Arabs will nonetheless vote for the Labor Party in the Knesset balloting and that at least 80 percent will support Peres for the premiership.

If they do not, there is a good chance that Netanyahu and the Likud will win come May 29 — all very much thanks to the Israeli Arab vote.