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Salah Tarif's balancing act

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  • Josh Pollack
    http://www.tnr.com/050701/halevi050701.html The New Republic JERUSALEM DISPATCH Identity Crisis by Yossi Klein Halevi Post date 04.26.01 | Issue date 05.07.01
    Message 1 of 1 , May 2, 2001
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      The New Republic

      Identity Crisis
      by Yossi Klein Halevi

      Post date 04.26.01 | Issue date 05.07.01

      In Israel, spring is a season of mourning and celebration that exposes the
      abyss between Israel's Arabs and Jews. The season begins a week after
      Passover with Holocaust Memorial Day, continues through Remembrance Day for
      the nation's fallen soldiers, and culminates with Independence Day. For
      Jews, the trajectory is from annihilation to resistance to rebirth; for
      Arabs, it moves in the opposite direction, culminating in national defeat.

      But the distance has never felt as great as it does this spring, with Israel
      on the verge of war. Abroad, the press reports the chaos on Israel's
      periphery. At home, people worry as much about the potential chaos inside.

      Since last October's riots, when police killed 13 Arab citizens, the minimal
      trust that connected Israel's Arabs and Jews has collapsed. Arabs see the
      killings as proof that the Jewish state considers them enemies rather than
      citizens; Jews regard the readiness of Arab Israelis to join in Palestinian
      violence as proof that they aren't a loyal minority but part of a hostile
      regional majority. Both sides increasingly dismiss the very identity "Arab
      Israeli" as an oxymoron. When, during the election campaign, Ariel Sharon
      dryly noted that Israel's one million Arabs are in fact Palestinian, almost
      no one paid attention.

      Indeed, most of the Knesset's 13 Arab members now function as a
      psychological fifth column, openly backing Israel's enemies. After Israel's
      retaliatory attack against a Syrian radar station in Lebanon last week, in
      which three Syrian soldiers were killed, Knesset member Abdulmalik Dehamshe
      sent a condolence letter to President Bashar al-Assad and listed his return
      address as "Nazareth, Palestine." Another Knesset member, Azmi Bashara, flew
      to Damascus and appeared on Syrian television, urging Arab steadfastness
      against Israel. The Jewish backlash against such actions is on display daily
      in the letters sections of the newspapers, which have become repositories of
      rage against Arab Israelis. "If the [Arab] minority wants an anti-Zionist
      state, holy war, terrorism and a flag with a crescent," reads a recent
      letter to Ma'ariv, "it should choose one of the Arab states that surround

      On remembrance day, Saleh Tarif, a member of the Druse minority and Israel's
      first-ever Arab Cabinet minister, represented the government at a ceremony
      in a Druse military cemetery in the Galilee. Standing before a crowd of
      mourners and identical rows of flat white stones engraved with names in
      Hebrew and Arabic, he recalled the security contribution of the Druse, the
      only Arabs drafted into the Israeli army. Tarif himself is a former
      paratrooper, and his leg still contains shrapnel from the Lebanon war. He
      tried to express his ambivalence toward the state he served. "We are proud
      to be citizens of Israel," he declared. "But I still can't report to you
      that equal opportunity exists between Druse and Jews. Or equal rights. Or
      equal treatment by the government." He added, "We are fed up."

      In this volatile environment, Tarif presents a dual challenge--to Jewish
      obtuseness and Arab self-righteousness. His primary strategy for defusing
      the rising tension is a massive infusion of government funding into the Arab
      sector to redress decades of institutionalized discrimination and neglect.
      Prime Minister Sharon has just allocated about $50 million for affirmative
      action programs--a good beginning, says Tarif, but still far short of the
      four-year, $1 billion plan Ehud Barak promised. Tarif is even lobbying his
      fellow ministers to set aside part of their budgets for the effort. And he's
      calling on the education ministry to institute mandatory Arabic instruction
      in Jewish schools.

      In return, Tarif, who's been a Labor Party Knesset member since 1991, hopes
      Arab Israelis will find their national identity by aligning with the Zionist
      left--just as another outsider community, ultra-Orthodox Jews, have found
      their place in an alliance with the nationalist right. Virtually alone among
      the Knesset's Arab members, he opposes confusing the Arab struggle for equal
      rights with a challenge to the state's Jewish identity. Only by avoiding
      incitement of Jewish fears, he argues, will Arabs shame Jews into ending
      discrimination. He believes that those Arab Israelis who call themselves
      "Palestinian citizens of Israel" undermine their own moral cause by reducing
      their Israeliness to a technicality. "You can't deny [our] deep solidarity
      with the Palestinians," he says. "But I am an Israeli, not a Palestinian."

      Yet the 47-year-old Tarif is no court Arab. During a 1997 visit to Syria as
      part of an Arab Israeli delegation, he exclaimed that he was "in love" with
      Hafez al-Assad. He has called for pulling Druse soldiers out of Gaza,
      expressed solidarity with the intifada, and blamed Sharon's visit to the
      Temple Mount for the recent Palestinian violence. At official gatherings he
      won't sing the national anthem--because, he says, its invocation of a
      "Jewish soul" implicitly excludes non-Jewish Israelis. He'd be "proud,"
      though, "to sing about the Israeli soul."

      Tarif can name the precise moment when he became an Israeli-by-choice. In
      1982, one of his closest friends, a Jewish paratrooper named Yossi Tal, was
      killed in Lebanon, and Tarif went to pay a condolence call to the family.
      "It was an awesome moment," he says. "Here I am, their son's friend, coming
      to cry with them. Family members hugged me; it tore my soul." Admitted into
      the nation's most intimate experience, Tarif emerged an Israeli.

      But that transformation only made his encounter with official discrimination
      that much more devastating. After leaving the army, he was elected head of
      the council of the Druse village of Julis. "I tried to fight discrimination
      in funding Druse councils, but I was met by a cold wind. In uniform, no one
      cared about my Arabic name. But now suddenly my name mattered."

      Though Tarif says he represents all Arab Israelis, he owes his appointment
      to the fact that he is Druse. Sharon insisted that the first Arab Cabinet
      minister be a Druse, in an effort to reward the community for its patriotism
      and send a signal to other Arab Israelis that loyalty pays. "If not for
      Sharon," says Tarif, "it's doubtful whether the Labor Party would have voted
      for me" to be a minister without portfolio in the unity government.

      Still, relations with Sharon are ambivalent. At his first meeting as prime
      minister with Arab Knesset members, Sharon pointedly excluded Tarif, who'd
      just repeated on Israeli television that Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount
      constituted a "desecration." Tarif later apologized, and Sharon declared the
      feud over.

      But their truce is a rare exception in the increasingly bitter war of words
      between Israel's Arab and Jewish leaders. More typical was a political talk
      show on which Tarif recently appeared with other Knesset members to debate
      Israeli identity. Ahmed Tibi, a former adviser to Yasir Arafat, defended his
      parliamentary bill to declare Arab Israelis an autonomous community, while
      Tommy Lapid, head of the secular Shinui Party, countered with his bill to
      officially declare Israel a Jewish state. Tibi called Lapid "a little
      racist," and Lapid retaliated by chanting, "Enemy, enemy, enemy." While
      Tarif sat in silence, the other half-dozen panelists shouted at each other
      simultaneously--the Israeli version of a talk show.

      Finally, the moderator invited Tarif to speak. Turning to "my good friend
      Ahmed Tibi," Tarif said, "Instead of dealing with problems like
      unemployment, you're bringing populist bills that frighten the Jewish
      majority." Then he turned to his friend Lapid: "Tommy, why is your bill
      necessary? There are already so many laws that make this country a Jewish
      state. Why antagonize a million [Arab] citizens?" It was Tarif's implicit
      blueprint for coexistence: Arab prudence, Jewish forbearance.

      For a moment it seemed Tarif's moderation would prevail. But then Tibi
      attacked Tarif for remaining in the Labor Party, which perpetuated
      discrimination against Arabs. A right-wing Knesset member labeled Tibi an
      "Arafat collaborator." Lapid began shouting with an ultra-Orthodox
      politician over democracy and religion. Tarif reverted to silence and
      quickly gulped down a glass of water, as if trying to douse a fire.

      YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI is a contributing editor at TNR.
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