Israel’s Arab cabinet minister

Ehud Olmert has appointed a member of Israel’s Arab community to the cabinet, the JTA reports. The predictable furore has erupted on both right and left (this is Israel, after all) but overall, whatever Olmert’s motivations, I think this counts as a Good Thing.

Arab’s delayed Cabinet appointment
stirs accusations of racism, politicking
By Dan Baron
January 15, 2007

JERUSALEM, Jan. 15 (JTA) — The naming of the first Arab minister to the Israeli Cabinet was billed as an event underscoring hope of securing racial harmony in the Jewish state, though it may long remain mired in regional conflict.

But the nomination of Raleb Majadele instead has merely served to uncover Israel’s often messy personality politics and the latent racism of some of its citizens.

Majadele, a veteran Laborite, was chosen last week by the party’s leader, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, for the science, culture and sport portfolio. He is to replace Ophir Pines-Paz, who bolted in November to protest Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s inclusion of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party alongside Labor in the governing coalition.

Peretz was quoted as telling Majadele that in government, he would “help improve relations between the various sectors of Israeli society” — a reference to Jewish-Arab ties strained by the Palestinian intifada and allegations of institutional discrimination.

Seemingly the nomination was a brazen bit of inverse race-baiting by the dovish Peretz: Pines-Paz left because of what he perceived as Yisrael Beiteinu’s anti-Arab platform, only to have his place taken by an Arab.

Asked how he would deal with sitting in government with Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, who has proposed ceding Israeli Arab areas to a future Palestinian state and ousting Arab lawmakers from the Knesset, Majadele said, “It won’t be simple.”

But he added, “I think that my appointment strengthens the Israeli government and constitutes a step in the right direction toward the Arab public.”

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert praised Majadele’s nomination. But its ratification, which was expected to take place at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, was postponed for a week.

The prime minister told his Kadima faction that the appointment of an Arab minister “is a significant act whose time has come.”

“But the move must be made while keeping in mind the big picture of vacancies in the Cabinet and the demands of Labor and Yisrael Beiteinu,” Olmert said.

Israeli media quoted Olmert confidantes as accusing Peretz of failing to consult with the prime minister before putting Majadele’s name forward. Sources close to the defense minister charged Olmert with delaying the appointment in order to help Ehud Barak, whom Olmert is said to prefer for Labor leader, gather support ahead of that party’s May primary.

Condemnation of Majadele’s appointment was quick to come from both Jews and Arabs.

Esterina Tartman, a senior Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker, accused Peretz in a radio interview of threatening the Jewish character of Israel by encouraging “assimilation.”

She was further quoted by Israeli media as calling Majadele’s nomination a “blight” on Zionism — language that drew censure from across Israel’s political spectrum.

Some Israeli Arabs, meanwhile, accused Peretz of an attempt at tokenism and patronage.

“In the existing situation, the ability of an Arab minister who is a member of a Jewish-Zionist party to influence the condition of the Arab population and central issues, such as the Palestinian question, appears to be nil,” said Asad Ghanem, a Haifa University professor who recently helped put together a manifesto arguing that Israel’s Jewish character was inconsistent with full civic participation for its Arab minority.

“I think that Majadele, as an Arab minister, won’t even work as a fig leaf,” Ghanem said.

Others saw an even more partisan ploy by Peretz, whose standing in Labor has been at a nadir since the summer war in Lebanon, the failings of which are blamed by many Israelis on the militarily untested defense minister.

Enlisting the support of Labor’s sizable Arab electorate could help Peretz fend off challenges in the primary by Barak, a former Israeli prime minister and military chief, and Ami Ayalon, a former Navy admiral and Shin Bet director.

“This appointment is exclusively for the purpose of the primary and is characteristic of a confused government that is only dealing with its survival,” said Pines-Paz, another contender in the Labor race.

Unlike Tartman, Lieberman said he had no problem with an Arab joining the Cabinet, but he echoed the charges against Peretz.

“The problem here is in the timing and the fact that a minister in the State of Israel is using the tools at his disposal wrongfully in order to promote himself politically,” Lieberman said.

Majadele, a 53-year-old father of four from Baka al-Garbiya, would not be the first non-Jew to serve as an Israeli Cabinet minister. Olmert’s predecessor, Ariel Sharon, appointed Salah Tarif, a Druse, to his Cabinet. Tarif stepped down in 2002 amid corruption charges.