When will Arabs win political, social equality in Israel

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The recent wranglings over whether Israeli Arab Knesset members should join the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee highlight the main problem confronting this minority in the Jewish state's 52nd year.

A large part of Israel's Jews simply do not trust Arab citizens.

It is wrong to attempt to address this problem by merely cluck-clucking over Jewish "racism." There certainly is a measure of such racist anti-Arab sentiment among us Jews, especially among fervently religious Jews, some of whom hate all non-Jews, and among Jews from Arab countries, some of whom hate their former persecutors.

But my impression is that these reprehensible Jewish attitudes do not even come close to matching the virulent anti-Semitism rife in the Arab world and among many Israeli Arabs.

Israeli Jewish attitudes toward Arab citizens are based primarily on the fact that the Arabs are not simply a harmless minority, but a population that was conquered within living memory in a traumatic war of independence. Many of them still openly identify themselves with Israel's enemies.

On the other hand, in Israel's 51 years, very few Israeli Arabs have by their deeds — as opposed to their words — given cause to view them as active and dangerous enemies of Israel.

Our situation here is not unusual in a world of intense nationalism and the rise of nation-states, which always seem to include disaffected ethnic and national minorities. The relationships in such states are never simple.

So Israel's attitudes and behavior — those of the Jewish majority toward the Arab minority and those of the Arab minority to the state — should be judged primarily by the whether they reduce mutual suspicions and animosities, or aggravate them.

By this criterion, new Knesset member Ahmed Tibi's recent grandstanding about the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is regrettable. For Tibi, who has long served as Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat's adviser, to demand membership on the Knesset committee that deals with Israel's security problems is not only ludicrous but an additional cause for fanning Israeli suspicions of the Arab minority.

Tibi knows this. But he has long been in the business of stroking his own ego and that of the Israeli Arab population by publicly tweaking the noses of the Israeli Jews.

It is a perverse thing to do. In general, Israeli Arabs would do well to learn from the experience of the world's quintessential minority: diaspora Jewry. Intelligent minorities and their leaders never go out of their way to gratuitously anger the majorities among whom they live and on whose good will they depend.

Some among us argue that there is nothing wrong with having Tibi on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee because the Arafat whom he served is no longer our enemy.

Wrong. Arafat, Syria's Hafez Assad and many other Arab leaders with whom we have been negotiating, openly or surreptitiously, are still very much our enemies, until time proves them to be otherwise. And Israeli Arab leaders like Tibi, Azmi Bishara or Abdul Wahab Darawshe, who rush to fawn upon their likes, are doing their people a very serious disservice.

So much for preaching to the Arabs; now for us Jews.

We have done not too badly over the years in our treatment of a population identified so closely with our mortal enemies. But Israeli Arabs are also serious victims of continuing public and private discrimination.

In a recently released list of the most affluent and most poverty-stricken communities in Israel, Arab and Bedouin towns occupied all the slots in the latter group. The highest incidence of Israelis below the poverty line or with the highest unemployment rates, is also among Arabs.

Although no one would ever guess it from the recent coalition negotiations, it is in Israel's interest to address these problems as urgently as possible.

In a hyper-politicized society like Israel, the priority accorded to various socioeconomic problems derives almost entirely from the political clout a given population has attained. Witness the position of the fervently religious Shas Party.

During coalition negotiations, Prime Minister Ehud Barak proceeded along the lines of his recent Labor Party predecessors, by assuming the automatic support of the Arab parties while dismissing the idea of an Arab in the cabinet as preposterous.

I would suspect that until a formal peace treaty with the Palestinians is signed, there will be too much Jewish opposition to the appointment of an Arab cabinet minister. But that should certainly not preclude Barak from naming one or two Arabs as deputy ministers to perhaps make a dent in the problems confronting Israeli Arabs.

If and when final-status talks with the Palestinians end in a peace agreement, the time would certainly be ripe for an Arab minister.

Even then, it would be desirable to link such a step to including Israeli Arabs in a system of compulsory national service, which would match their newly won rights and political achievements with new responsibilities.