President Moshe Katsav always knew that he had good friends in the Arab sector, whose rights he has been advocating for years, but it was not until Wednesday night that he discovered how strong the bonds of that friendship were.
At the fifth annual Iftar dinner that he hosted for heads of Arab communities, Islamic Movement spiritual leader Sheikh Abdallah Nimr Darwish from Kafr Kassem rose to the podium and declared: "We don't want a media tsunami to pass judgment on the number one citizen of Israel before he has been tried in a court of law."
Turning towards the media representatives at the back of the banquet hall, Darwish said: "You're the fourth estate. You're not the parliament, you're not the government and you're not the justice system. You have to learn to be non-judgmental in your reporting." Turning back to Katsav, Darwish said: "I want your smile to become as broad as possible."
At the opening of his remarks, Darwish said to Katsav: "You were strong; you must be strong and you will be strong. Our prayers are that the strong Moshe Katsav will become his former self. I am sure we will see him again in important places working for peace."
Darwish's words were endorsed by spontaneous applause from other members of the Muslim community.
Talking to reporters later, Darwish said: "I cannot accept that the media in a democratic country hang the president in the city square before he's been indicted. This president is close to Arabs and Jews. He's close to everyone. I support him to the end. We've seen presidents, but I've never seen one like him. I hope he comes out of this clean."
The sentiment was echoed by Labor MK Ghaleb Majadle, who said: "I share the prayers of Sheikh Darwish. I hope that President Katsav will continue to be among us and one of us." Majadle was one of four Arab MKs invited to break the Ramadan fast at Beit Hanassi. According to news reports, the others preferred to accept the invitation of Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik.
The three did not inform Beit Hanassi that they would not be attending, and there were angry mutterings about Itzik's motives. No one at Beit Hanassi, including journalists who cover the Knesset, could remember an Iftar dinner hosted by the Knesset Speaker. "The Knesset is cutting back on expenses but suddenly they have money for an Iftar dinner. It's a foul thing to do," said one Beit Hanassi source.
There were fewer guests in attendance at Beit Hanassi than in previous years, and three of the tables that had been set were left empty.
Beit Hanassi staff members said that traffic congestion from Abu Ghosh to the entrance of the city was delaying many of the guests and indeed some came in as much as 90 minutes late.
But the absence of quantity was compensated by the quality of affection. Katsav, who has a very special relationship with Israel's Arab citizens, worked the floor warmly, shaking hands, hugging some people and kissing others on both cheeks. He was escorted by his military aide Brig.-Gen. Shimon Hefetz and Beit Hanassi director-general Moshe Goral. "Have I missed anyone?" Katsav asked anxiously before taking his seat at the head table. It was extremely important to him to greet each of his guests individually.
Flanked by Darwish and Majadele, with whom he kept up a constant conversation throughout the meal, Katsav looked much happier and relaxed than he has in several weeks.
In his own address, he stressed the importance of focusing on the common denominator between Arabs and Jews rather than emphasizing the differences. "I think there is greater understanding for the need to foster closer and more cordial relations between Arabs and Jews," he said.
At the same time, he noted, "we cannot ignore the economic gap and the inequality between Arabs and Jews." The Arab citizens of Israel are equal citizens he said, and entitled to equal rights "before we ever mention obligations." The obligations can be argued about in the future said Katsav, "but first we have to implement the rights."