- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2007

History was made in Israel Monday with the appointment of Ghaleb Majadele as Cabinet minister, the first Arab and Muslim to be named to such a post in the country’s 59-year history.

Since the creation of Israel as a Jewish state this is the first time that an Arab-Israeli is nominated to a Cabinet position. Mr. Majadele’s appointment — and his confirmation by the Knesset — to serve in Ehud Olmert’s Cabinet sets a precedent for other possible changes in the very fiber and structure of Israel as a Jewish state.

Some will cry foul and see in this appointment a breach in the great wall of Zionism. With the appointment of a Muslim to the Cabinet of the state of Israel some will even raise the question if indeed Israel can remain a “Jewish state.”

“Of course it can,” Josh Block, a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — AIPAC — told United Press International. “Israel will maintain its majority as a Jewish state,” he said. “It’s just another dynamic of the state of Israel. It shows how well Arab Israelis are integrated in Israeli society. Unfortunately, you would never see a Jew appointed minister in an Arab country.”

But one Arab country has. Morocco. Andre Azoulay, a Moroccan Jew, served as senior adviser to King Mohammed VI, and prior to that was adviser to his father, King Hassan II. Still in Morocco, Mohammed VI appointed Abraham Serfaty, a former opposition leader, adviser to the National Office of Petroleum Exploitation and Research — ONAREP. And Serge Berdugo, a Jew very trusted by the King, was a minister of tourism and now is ambassador at large.

Certainly it will take more than the nomination of one Arab minister to change the course of history in the Middle East. While Mr. Majadele’s appointment does not herald the fall of the Walls of Jericho, it nevertheless creates a tiny crack in them.

Mr. Majadele’s appointment does not come without baggage — criticism from both sides. Ha’aretz newspaper’s Internet Web site reported Esterina Tartman, chairman of Yisrael Beitenu, as saying, “Mr. Majadele is a lethal blow to Zionism.”

And Arab legislators in the Knesset voted against the appointment. Taleb al-Sanah told Ynet they did so because the government was taking advantage of Mr. Majadele’s Arab identity. The appointment does not reflect a change of policy toward the Arab community. “This is the most racist government,” Mr. al-Sanah said.

Multiple other questions will arise: For example, to what extent will the rest of the Cabinet feel secure discussing sensitive issues relating to national defense and internal security knowing an Arab Muslim sits in their midst? How confident would the defense minister be in projecting retaliatory raids intended to strike back at Palestinian groups? Or would sensitive decisionmaking Cabinet meetings exclude the Arabs minister?

But the new Cabinet minister also has his defenders. Among them is none other than Amir Peretz, the defense minister and leader of the Labor Party, who said the “historic” appointment would improve relationships among different groups in Israel.

In principle, Mr. Peretz is correct. The appointment of an Arab, and a Muslim to boot, to a high government position should encourage other Arab Israelis who traditionally feel left out of Israeli society. It brings Arabs holding Israeli citizenship closer to a state many felt they never really belonged to.

Mr. Majadele replaces Ophir Pines-Paz, who resigned last October in protest at the addition of ultra-nationalist party Yisrael Beitenu to Mr. Olmert’s fragile coalition.

But if the move has already upset Jewish groups it has also irked the Druze, another large non-Jewish minority in Israel. Although the Druze find their roots in Islam, they have always been more readily accepted in Israeli society than other Arab groups. Unlike Israeli Arabs — both Muslim and Christians — who are excluded from serving in the Israeli army, Israeli Druze are called to military duty like most Israelis. An Israeli Druze, Salah Tarif, was appointed minister without portfolio in 2001.

The Israeli Arabs make up roughly 20 percent of the country’s population of about 7 million people. Arabs in Israel are still largely under-represented in government. Arab Israelis already serve in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, but the nomination of an Arab Israeli to the post of Cabinet minister is truly a groundbreaking moment in the history of the country.

There was speculation in the Israeli press that naming Mr. Majadele will allow Mr. Peretz and Labor to rally greater support among Israeli Arab citizens ahead of party elections in May.

And finally, his nomination is certain to raise controversy among his fellow Arabs every time a contentious decision is reached by the Cabinet. Needless to say, Mr. Majadele’s portfolio will be the heaviest, regardless of which one he eventually gets.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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