Wednesday, February 28, 2007

TEL AVIV — Israel got its first Arab president this week, a temporary position in a largely ceremonial post. It was a minor item in most newspapers and television, but the buzz on the Internet reflected deep divisions in the Jewish state, where one in five citizens are Arab.

When Israel’s acting President Dalia Itzik, a Jew, left for a one-week visit to the U.S. on Tuesday, Majalli Wahaba, a Druze, automatically became acting president until Ms. Itzik returns.

Mr. Wahaba, a deputy speaker in parliament, also owes his sudden promotion to rape accusations against Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who took a leave of absence.

That scandal vaulted the parliament speaker, Ms. Itzik, to the position of acting president. Mr. Wahaba is the only deputy parliamentary speaker from the ruling Kadima party, placing him in line for the presidency.

As acting president, Mr. Wahaba wields the power to grant clemency to prisoners, receive foreign ambassadors and attend official ceremonies on behalf of the state.

Beyond that, the presidency is largely a symbolic position that was established to elevate the head of state above politics.

“With our own hands, we are bringing the Arab occupation on Israel,” wrote one blogger.

Wrote another: “I love the Druze, but we’ve lost our traditions — a disgrace.” A third asked: “There’s no democracy. How can Arabs take control of the Jews?”

There were also supportive messages sending congratulations to the Druze community and proclaiming “a great day for the state of Israel.”

“Nice going. The Druze are our brothers, and they deserve equality,” said one.

Israel’s Arab minority, about one-fifth of the population, traditionally has been underrepresented in government.

The first Arab Supreme Court justice was appointed several years ago, and in January, Raleb Majadele from the Labor Party was named as the first Arab Cabinet minister in Israel’s history.

“It’s considered a part of making cosmetic changes without really dealing with the problems inside the Arab community,” said Jafar Farah, director of the civil rights group Mossawa.

“It’s good that at a time that people are calling to transfer the Arab population [to control of the Palestinian Authority], that Arab representatives are sitting in different positions, but in practice, it doesn’t change anything.”

Unlike most Israeli Arabs, who avoid army service, Mr. Wahaba, 53, rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Israeli Defense Forces.

He first ran for parliament with the Likud Party in 2003, and then went with former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when Mr. Sharon split from Likud to form Kadima in 2005.

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