majadle 298 knesset.
(photo credit: http://www.knesset.gov.il)
Speaking of Labor leader Amir Peretz's decision to nominate MK Ghaleb Majadle to a cabinet post, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Sunday, "The addition of an Arab [as a minister] is a significant act whose time has come" though the move must be made "while looking at the big picture of vacancies in the cabinet and the demands of Labor and Israel Beiteinu."
Though there has been one non-Jewish minister in our history, Labor's Salah Tarif, who is Druse, there has never been an Arab minister in an Israeli government. As roughly one fifth of Israeli citizens are Arabs, we agree with Olmert and most of our political parties that this stain on our democracy record should be corrected.
In this case, unfortunately, it is hard to escape the impression that the appointment is being made out of tokenism rather than on the merits. Majadle is a largely unknown figure who, if he does take up his post, will have leapt over many more senior and experienced members of his party. His tenure as chairman of the Knesset Committee on Interior and Environment has not won him much praise.
At the same time, it can be argued that correcting the historic lack of Arab representation in the cabinet is more important than any particular ministry, and that most first-time ministers must learn on the job.
Indeed, the potential significance of the appointment does not lie in its effect on Peretz's political fortunes or how it fits into Olmert's coalition calculations, but in what it could mean for the deteriorating relations between the Israeli Arab public and the Jewish state. This relationship has for some time suffered from an acute chicken-and-egg problem: discrimination and radicalization breed each other, neither can be addressed alone, while both clamor to be addressed first.
Last week, for example, MK Ahmad Tibi urged a rally of Fatah supporters to "continue the struggle" against Israel until a Palestinian state is established. In response to Tibi, Palestinians shouted that "millions of martyrs are marching to Jerusalem."
Even Meretz MK Avshalom Vilan considered that Tibi, in this instance, "went too far," given that "struggle" is the common code word for terrorism. Tibi, who openly served as an adviser to Yasser Arafat while in the Knesset, also spoke throughout of the Palestinians as "we" and Israelis as "they."
According to polls, Israeli Arabs increasingly self-identify as Palestinians and more openly reject the basic premises of a Jewish state. Some Israeli Arab MKs, rather than acting as a force of moderation, take advantage of their parliamentary immunity to openly side with enemies of the state.
This is not to say that there is no problem of discrimination against the Israeli Arabs. This community does not receive its proportionate share of the governments education and infrastructure budgets, and still suffers from a "glass ceiling" that blocks employment in a number of sectors. Successive Israeli government's have given lip-service to the need to address these inequalities - stressing the state's self-interest in ensuring its Arab minority feels that it has a stake in the country - but consistently failed to take sufficient action.
It should be obvious, however, that increasing Arab radicalization is only making it more difficult to summon the political will to correct discriminatory practices. Democracy involves a social contract between citizens and government. When either side flagrantly violates this tacit bargain, the other can be expected not to deliver as well.
We strenuously disagree with Israel Beiteinu MK Esterina Tartman's irresponsible claim that the appointment of an Arab minister is "an ax in the tree called Zionism." On the contrary, full equality between Arabs and Jews has always been part of the Zionist vision and is enshrined in our Declaration of Independence.
If Majadle is able to join the cabinet, we hope he will be able to rise above the circumstances of his appointment and set an example of how Jews and Arabs might better advance the implementation of the vision of Jewish-Arab coexistence in a Jewish state.