Cabinet move is ray of hope for Israel's Muslims
Friday, February 02, 2007
Jakarta Post, Indonesia
In these days of ongoing strife in the Middle East, there is nevertheless some news that provides a ray of light.
For the first time since the inception of the Jewish state, an Arab has been appointed a minister in the Israeli government. Ghaleb Majadele, a Muslim and Labor Party member of the Knesset got the nod from party chairman and Minister of Defense Amir Peretz after party colleague Ophir Pines resigned when Avigdor Lieberman, right-wing strongman of the nationalist Israel Beiteinu party was appointed to the Cabinet by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
In one sweep, Peretz at the same time made a political move long overdue, counteracted the inclusion of the problematic Lieberman, and shored up support of at least some of Israel's Muslim Arab population for his own race in Labor's internal elections coming May. While the move was generally viewed as a political maneuver by the Labor Party, it nevertheless faithfully reflects the inclusive politics of the party and, to a large degree, a feeling that such an appointment should have come a long time ago. Interestingly enough, Majadele joined the government in the wake of two other developments that are indicative of positive dynamics in the relations towards Israel's Muslim community:
The planned opening of a Muslim prayer room at Israel's gateway to the world, Ben Gurion Airport near Tel-Aviv, and a similar venture at Rambam Hospital in Haifa, which caters to the large Jewish and Muslim population in northern Israel, are other positive developments. These come on the heels of the establishment of such a facility at the Sheba hospital complex, Israel's largest medical center.
These developments should be seen as a further step in the normalization of the relationship between Israel's Muslims and the rest of Israel's citizen's. Israel's Muslims suffered from the recent Hizbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel no less than their fellow Jewish citizens and their need for spiritual solace in the confines of the country's hospitals has been recognized. These events are also indicative of the increasing number of international Muslim visitors to the Jewish State who are accustomed to prayer rooms in public facilities, not only in their home countries.
Israel's Muslim citizens, close to 20 percent of Israel's population, have long found themselves between a rock and a hard place: Witnesses to an ongoing struggle between Israel and the Palestinians and, often enough, with Muslim countries in Israel's close vicinity, they are torn between loyalty to a nation that has afforded them more political rights and economic opportunity than Muslims have in any other Arab nation (and most Muslim ones as well), and the empathy and pain they feel for their long suffering Palestinian brethren.
By and large they have dealt admirably with this constant conflict and only a few have crossed the lines and actively supported Palestinian terror. A large majority would never give up Israeli citizenship for the questionable rights they would get in a future Palestinian state, when that comes into being. They are represented in Israel's parliament, although they would probably be the first to wonder about some of the motives of the 12 parliamentarians they elected. Most of those seem to view their job as to represent the more radical and objectionable positions in the Arab and Muslim community rather than try to advance the interests of the Arab and Muslim population in Israel at large.
At the same time, the proximity and intensity of the Palestinian conflict has had an impact on the ability of Israel's Muslim population to further its economic and civic interests within a Jewish nation.
While Israel's Muslims, generally speaking, have a considerably higher standard of living than Muslims in Arab or Muslim countries, they nevertheless are disproportionally represented among Israel's poor, on average perform below their fellow Jewish citizens in standard educational tests and are underrepresented in the Israeli civil service and in state-owned companies. The fact that, for obvious reason, they do not have to serve in Israel's military has put them at a disadvantage, limiting their eligibility for some public benefits.
It is probably not a coincidence that efforts to bring Israel's Muslims closer to the rest of the population come at a time when Palestine is on the brink of civil war, the Muslim world is in turmoil, the struggle between the Sunni and the Shia is heating up and a non-Arab nation like Iran is threatening the Arab world.
Israel has come around and recognizes the need to draw its Arabs and Muslims closer, not an easy task in view of the ethnic and religious challenges posed by extremists on all sides. The appointment of a Muslim Arab minister is a significant move that will gain the support of most parties in the Knesset. The provision of improved religious services and amenities preceding the appointment was a more innocuous way of moving in the right direction and has few, if any, opponents.
No doubt, the constant internecine warfare in the Arab world has made Israel's Muslim population ever more aware of the benefits afforded by citizenship of a democratic nation, even under a large Jewish majority. Israel's Arab Muslims today enjoy political freedoms and economic opportunities available to few Arab Muslims in the world.
No matter how equitable their position is by objective measure (and there is still quite a way to go), they feel the need to give expression to their national feelings as well. To deal with these concerns will be one of the more difficult challenges Israel's Jewish and Muslim leaderships will face in the years ahead. The appointment of an Arab Muslim to Israel's Cabinet is but one small move in the right direction.
The writer is a retired Israeli diplomat who served in Southeast Asia from 2000-2003.