Salah Tarif's balancing act
The New Republic
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
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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