- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2007

JERUSALEM — Raleb Majadele says his success as the first Arab Muslim to serve in Israel’s Cabinet will be judged one student and one classroom at a time.

Although many of his Arab political colleagues rail against symbols that equate the state with Judaism, such as the Star of David flag, Mr. Majadele is more concerned with practical matters, such as improving educational standards for Israeli Arab children.

“You need to be strong enough and influential to say, ‘Excuse me, we are missing 2,000 classrooms.’ Until now, no one has ever sat there and saw to it that that would be his test,” the 53-year-old political trailblazer said yesterday.

Initially tapped for the Science Ministry post recently vacated by a lawmaker from his Labor Party, Mr. Majadele will serve as minister without portfolio while Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decides on a redivision of the vacant ministerial posts.

But Mr. Majadele made clear yesterday that education will be a top priority for him.

“That doesn’t mean that I can solve all the problems in the next budget. But if we can build in the next year 500 classrooms, something that we haven’t done in five years, it’s progress,” he said.

It’s an attitude that reflects the Arab lawmaker’s preference for pragmatism over ideology, accommodation over confrontation and integration over separation in approaching Israel’s Jewish establishment.

As Mr. Majadele plied the noisy corridors of the Israeli parliament yesterday, there was ample handshakes and expressions of good will. “Mabruk,” congratulated one security guard in Arabic. “Mister Minister,” greeted Effie Eitam, a far-right lawmaker and Jewish settler. “I wish you good luck.”

Since the appointment of an Arab to Israel’s Supreme Court some years ago, Mr. Majadele’s entrance into the Cabinet is the most dramatic example of integration for a minority community that sees itself as marginalized and segregated.

But it comes at a time when Jewish-Arab relations are polarized over the Palestinian uprising and a plan by Cabinet member Avigdor Lieberman to force some Israeli Arabs out of Israel, leaving many in that community questioning whether any Arab should serve in the government.

“The question is: Does this really represent a turning point in the question of inclusion or exclusion,” said Elie Rekhess, a scholar at Tel Aviv University and director of the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation. “This is definitely not the dream that the more national segment of Arab politics in Israel had in mind.”

Mr. Majadele said he considers himself first an Arab, then a citizen of Israel, then a Palestinian and lastly a Muslim. But three Arab parties in parliament voted against his confirmation on Monday.

“Majadele enters the government as a representative of the Labor Party and not of the Arab public,” said Jamal Zahalka, a lawmaker from the National Democratic Assembly party.

“He’s entering a government that doesn’t want peace, carries out crimes against the Palestinian people, opened a war in Lebanon. It’s a government that discriminates against Arab citizens in Israel.

“No less important, it’s a government that includes” Mr. Lieberman, who would redraw the border with the West Bank to swap Israeli Arabs for Jewish settlers.

Mr. Majadele said that he does not think Mr. Lieberman belongs in the Cabinet, but that he won’t feel awkward sitting on the same table as the hard-liner. “Nothing prevents me from feeling good,” Mr. Majadele said.

Some liberal Jews hope that Mr. Majadele will both symbolize and take steps toward reconciliation. “You mustn’t fail,” said Akiva Eldar, a political commentator for the left-wing Ha’aretz newspaper at the end of an interview.

Despite his advocacy of integration and his membership in the Labor Party, Mr. Majadele said he is not a Zionist and won’t sing the national anthem, Hatikvah, which romanticizes the Jewish longing for national liberation in the “Land of Zion.”

“It doesn’t speak to me. You want me to sing the national anthem? Show some respect, and bring one that speaks to me, and universal values — something I, as an Arab, can live with,” he said.

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