A surprise guest at the fourth annual Iftar dinner for Arab dignitaries hosted Sunday by President Moshe Katsav was Nasser Yousef, interior minister of the Palestinian Authority.
Other guests included diplomats from Egypt, Jordan, Mauritania and Morocco, senior representatives of the Islamic Movement, the Supreme Monitoring Committee of the Israeli Arab leadership, Arab Members of Knesset, local council heads and other notables. It was the largest such gathering to date.
Yousef arrived at Beit Hanassi with Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish, the charismatic founder of the Islamic Movement in Israel.
Although Darwish and MK Abdul-Malik Dahamshe took turns in acting as Yousef's interpreter, it is not entirely certain that he needed one, since Yousef laughed at Hebrew witticisms before they were translated for him.
Aided by interpreters, he had a long t te- -t te with Katsav at the close of the dinner, stressing the need for economic cooperation and a more concerted effort towards coexistence.
"We're not like other people in the region," he told Katsav. "We're not just neighbors. We're living in each other's back yards."
In greeting his guests, Katsav stressed the commonalities of Arabs and Jews as "the children of Abraham" and the universal values of the three monotheistic faiths - Judaism, Islam and Christianity. "Whoever does not observe the tenets integral to the three great faiths is acting against God," he said.
Katsav expressed pride in the fact that Muslim citizens of Israel have full freedom of worship, but even greater pride in the fact that Israeli Arabs have adamantly refused to be part of a land-for-people trade-off and have opted to retain their Israeli citizenship rather than live under Palestinian jurisdiction.
Katsav was also proud of the fact that there are 17,000 Arab students enrolled in Israeli institutes of higher education. Aware of the fact that all of them have to be fluent in Hebrew in order to reach this level, Katsav advocated that Arabic should also become a compulsory subject in Israeli schools. "I would like every Israeli child to be fluent in Arabic as part of his cultural experience," he said.
An ardent and veteran campaigner for Arab rights, Katsav acknowledged that there are still major gaps between the Jewish and Arab communities, and that on the whole, Arab communities are disadvantaged in many spheres.
"Arabs have full rights as citizens," he declared. "I hope that the government fulfills its obligations to the Arab sector. We don't have to enact new laws. We just have to carry out the things we have already agreed to do. I am your friend and your brother, and I will continue to advocate your rights on all fronts," he pledged.
Calling for a regional fatwa (Islamic decree), Katsav said that after 57 years of Israel's statehood, there was no sense in maintaining regional hostilities.