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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Amid the bustle of new committees, overdue budgets and fresh agendas, the 17th Knesset's first week produced some unlikely bedfellows.
"Sometimes, as a politician, you make life-long partners. Other times it is a one-night stand," said one Labor MK. "This week, it was all about getting yourself on the right committee, in the right office. This week, it was all one-night stands."
In any dating game, however, there are always the "undesirables." And several days into the match-making process, Arab members of Knesset said they were finding themselves with no likely "dance partners" in sight. Although they represent three different parties, the 10 MKs say they all have found themselves kept out of several prestigious committees and ministerial posts. The result: While their number of seats has grown, the Arab MKs claim that their influence has shrunk.
"There is a serious deterioration in the treatment of Arab Knesset members," said MK Taleb a-Sanaa (Ra'am-Tal). "People point to a number of reasons for this; but I think it all comes down to racism."
Yet Arab MKs' accusations of racism have become so common as to often be ignored - and their position has become increasingly awkward as they themselves claim to be functioning with one foot in each world.
"Our nation is at odds with our state," said a-Sanaa. "They [the Jewish MKs] treat us like we our traitors and our own Arab brothers treat us like we are traitors."
Coalition MKs rebut this by claiming that the Arab MKs ostracize themselves by refusing to take part in traditions such as the singing of the national anthem.
"We treat them differently because they act differently," said one Kadima MK. "We can't just go and meet with Hamas, and we wouldn't even if we could. Then they go and hold those meetings and expect us not to blink?"
The meetings between Arab MKs and Hamas were held when the 17th Knesset was still in its formative phase, and the fallout has centered around the issue of a-Sanaa's placement on a crucial committee.
Within the framework of the interim committees that operated while coalition talks were being held, a-Sanaa became the second Arab MK in history to be granted a seat on the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee (United Arab List MK Hashem Mahmeed was the first, during Ehud Barak's government). This panel is the civilian overseer of the IDF, meets with top military and intelligence officials and is privy to sensitive security information.
Before the committee even held its first meeting, a-Sanaa conducted a meeting of his own - a two-hour session with Hamas parliamentarians - sparking a storm that has yet to die down. In response - and in a move to prevent a-Sanaa from taking part in the committee - Interim Committee Chairman MK Yuval Steinitz cancelled all its scheduled meetings.
"It was such a silly overreaction," said a-Sanaa of the move. "They say I could have passed along sensitive information, but I met with the Hamas members before I had been to a single committee meetingâ€¦ They were looking for a reason to get me off of that committee."
On Monday, when the Knesset's Interim House Committee published its list of committees, there were no seats reserved for Arab parties in the Foreign Affairs and Defense slots. A-Sanaa said he had been directly snubbed.
Many in the Knesset disagree, however, saying that a-Sanaa brought the banishment upon himself.
"He deliberately met with Hamas legislators - an act that was completely inappropriate for a member of the committee," said Steinitz. He added that while a-Sanaa had not yet been privy to sensitive information, his meeting with Hamas set a precedent that could, in the future, threaten Israeli security.
MEANWHILE, IN the plenum, battle is already in full swing between Israel Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman and the Arab MKs.
Lieberman, who threw down the first gauntlet with a controversial speech last week comparing Arab MKs to Nazi war collaborators, continued his frontal attack this week with a series of additional comments.
"I am no racist," said Lieberman. "I just ask the obvious questions. Why does no Israeli Arab MK condemn calls by the Iranian president? ...The Arab public has to understand the problem lies in their midst."
For veteran MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al), Lieberman's attacks have served to crystallize what he feels is a growing ostracism. "Racism and fascism have moved from the fiery marketplaces to the Knesset and the government seats," said Tibi. "The main indication is the rise of an Israeli fascist party, Israel Beiteinu, in the last elections."
The Israel Democracy Institute survey released this week - according to which 62 percent of Israeli Jews want the government to encourage Arab citizens to leave - provided fuel for Tibi's assertion. Arab MKs said the figure mirrored the rise in the popularity of Israel Beiteinu, which built part of its election campaign on a promise to redraw Israel's map to exclude major Israeli Arab communities.
"Unfortunately, I was not surprised at all by the survey," said United Arab List-Ta'al chairman MK Ibrahim Sarsur. "It is shocking that there is still such a large percentage of the Jewish people who do not believe in full partnership between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority."
According to a-Sanaa, Arab legislators had better conditions in the past.
"There was a feeling of true inclusion, of truly moving forward in the Rabin government," said a-Sanaa. "And in Netanyahu's government we took a much more active part in drawing up the budget."
The history of Arabs MKs goes back to the founding of the state, when three served in the first Knesset. Although their representation increased in subsequent years, their inclusion in ministries and influential committees has remained sparse. Indeed, it wasn't until as recently as the last government that an Arab became a minister, when Ariel Sharon appointed Salah Tarif as the first non-Jew in the cabinet.
"One ministerial position is not enough; there needs to be constant movement forward," said a-Sanaa. "How can they make the Palestinians partners for peace, when they haven't yet even reached out to make us [Arab Israelis] partners?"
Though talk of the "convergence" plan is now dominating the Knesset, the new Defense Minister, Amir Peretz (Labor), has sworn to exhaust the negotiating table before agreeing to any further unilateral withdrawals. While Arab MKs see themselves as natural partners at such a table, they claim that they are being distanced from it, rather than invited to pull up a seat.
"We want to be included. We want to help. But only if they are talking about bilateral moves," said a-Sanaa.
So far, the Arab MKs have not been invited to join Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's 67-member coalition of Kadima, Labor, Shas, and the Pensioners parties. Deliberations over the budget have already revealed cracks in the coalition, and several Kadima MKs acknowledged that they might ultimately rely on the Arab MKs to pass the convergence plan.
"Sharon, in the end, needed the votes of the Arab [MKs] to pass both the budget and the disengagement plan," said one Kadima MK. "Ultimately, we'll bring them on board the coalition."
This week's announcement of committee seats led opposition parties to the right to concur with this assessment and hurl accusations of being kept at bay to tilt the numbers in favor of convergence.
Each party was granted committee seats according to its percentage of MKs. Parties with more than seven MKs were automatically given at least one seat in the "big four" committees: Foreign Affairs and Defense; House; Finance; and Law.
But Likud MKs charged that the list showed a high number of Meretz and Arab MKs on the Finance and Law committees, to guarantee Olmert's ability to pass his plan.
"So on the one hand, they leave us out of Foreign and Defense, and on the other they accuse us of being in other prestigious committees," said a-Sanaa. "Anyone who looked at the numbers could see that we deserve those committee seats."
"They are stacking the deck," said Likud MK Gidon Sa'ar. "It is a clear case of tampering in favor of convergence."
The Arab MKs, however, said that there was no clear mandate among their parties to vote in favor of convergence.
"When the time comes we will see," said a-Sanaa. "It is very important for us that the future withdrawals are conducted amid bilateral talks... If we feel there is a clear dialogue and partnership we will certainly support convergence."
Meanwhile, a-Sanaa said that any speculations about his or other Arab MKs' being strategically placed on committees to pass convergence were entirely premature.