Will Ghaleb Majadlah Be Israel's First Muslim Cabinet Minister-And What Would That Mean in Terms of the Future of Israeli Arabs?

Sometimes, highly significant decisions may be driven by somewhat less edifying motives. It is commonly assumed in Israel, not least within the Labor Party itself, that the party leader, Defense Minister Amir Peretz—whose standing with the public at large and within the ranks of his party has been sinking steadily since the war in Lebanon—chose Ghaleb Majadlah, an Arab member of Knesset from the town of Baqa al-Gharbiyyah, as his party's candidate for a vacant ministerial post not simply because he wanted to set right an historical wrong; apparently, he saw this as an opportunity to cement the support of the Arab sector of the party for the forthcoming internal struggle in which he will face new contenders for the leadership: former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and the rising star, Ami Ayalon, a former general turned peace visionary. A transparent bid for political advantage, Majadlah's appointment nevertheless has become a loaded symbolic issue, with much more at stake than the notoriously emotional and complex balance of internal Labor politics.

Majadlah himself is an unassuming but effective operator who rose at the municipal level and within the unions, with a background in Hapoel sports politics—a plus insofar as his proposed portfolio includes Sports. (The other aspects of the position, vacated by Ophir Paz-Pines, who is also a contender for the leadership, are Culture and Science, areas in which Majadlah's authority is somewhat less established.) He is well-liked personally, and the very fact that he belongs to a Zionist party at a time of radicalization among Israeli Arabs (or Palestinians, as many of them would rather be called) reflects his orientation. Nevertheless, his suggested appointment roiled another coalition partner—Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu, a right-wing party with a strong base in the Russian sector—for whom the loyalties of Israeli Arabs are constantly in doubt. One of the party's MKs, Esterina Tartman, used language so offensive that she was censured even by members of her own party. The controversy, and some procedural questions, have delayed the Cabinet confirmation, and there could yet be more twists and turns to this saga.

What makes this move so important is not simply the precedent—for the first time, having a Muslim Arab sitting at the Cabinet table—but, even more so, the timing. The context has been shaped by the publication, in December 2006, of a report by a group of prominent Israeli Arab intellectuals and politicians who offered a Future Vision for the Palestinian Arabs in Israel, written at the request of the Countrywide Committee of the Heads of Arab Local Councils in Israel (Al-lajnah al-qutriyyah li-ru'asa' al-suluttat al-mahaliyyah al-Arabiyyah fi Isra'il)—led by Shawki al-Khatib, who doubles as the chairman of the Supreme Follow-Up Committee for the Arab Masses in Israel (Lajnat al-mutaba'ah al-‘uliya lil-jamahir al-Arabiyyah fi Isra'il). While the names of these semi-official institutions, which claim to be representative of the Arab community per se—as distinct from the political role played by the three Arab-based parties in the Knesset—still reflect the traditional identification as "Israeli Arabs," the text of this dramatic document identifies them as Palestinians—"obliged" to bear an Israeli citizenship but profoundly inimical to the Zionist project that created the state. They define that project as an offshoot of European colonialism. They reject its Jewish symbols, including the flag and the national anthem. They demand not only autonomy as a national community, but veto power over key policies, including aliya—which for them, as for Palestinians who adhere to their national narrative, is nothing but discriminatory foreign immigration.

Even liberal Israeli voices who have long advocated greater equality—such as Professor Amnon Rubinestein (whose revised study of the actual conditions of Israeli Arabs has recently been published by AJC and is available at www.ajc.org) and the Israel Democracy Institute—were deeply disturbed: Here was a document that spoke not in the name of an aggrieved sector, poorly served in the allocation of resources, but on behalf of the Palestinian National Movement, seeking both a sovereign state, cleansed of Jews, in the West Bank and Gaza (with its capital in "Arab Jerusalem"), and the dismantlement of Israel as a Jewish state. It was as if Khatib and his colleagues were intent on proving Lieberman right. This is what lent such significance, and a twist of irony, to Majadlah's appointment. After all, the reason Paz-Pines left the cabinet in the first place was his protest against Olmert's decision to enlarge the coalition by bringing Yisrael Beitenu in. And now, an Arab politician has accepted the prospect of taking his place and sitting around the same table with Lieberman. This can be read—and has been portrayed by some Arab politicians and commentators—as a cynical act by an individual hungry for office, but perhaps this is the wrong way to look at it.

Putting aside the actual political circumstances, it would, in fact, be a significant day in Israel's history when a Muslim joins the Cabinet (putting us ahead, in this respect, of some of our blatant detractors in Europe). Moreover, it sends the message that practical realities, in various shades of gray and patches of other colors, do not conform with Future Vision and its exacting black (read: aggressive Zionism) and white (read: oppressed Palestinians) formulations. Israel's Palestinian Arab minority has real grievances, and much hard work on greater economic equality—or, at least, educational opportunity—and on dialogue with "the other" needs to be done. Some policy changes may be long overdue. But the daily practice of most Arabs is much less hostile to Israel's Zionist identity than the political expressions would imply. A complex economic and social interaction goes on; and a broad range of groups, such as the Abraham Fund (whose leaders came to Beit Moses this week to learn about American Jewry and our perspectives on interfaith dialogue), do their best to bridge the gaps and maintain the hope of coexistence. Insofar as the appointment of a Muslim Arab minister reflects these dynamics, and represents the real world of middle grounds and practical compromises, Ghaleb Majadlah may well be vindicated in his wish to be an agent of historic change.

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