Arab Cabinet Minister Approved in Israel

Israel this week approved the first Muslim and Arab cabinet minister in the 59-year history of the Jewish state. The new minister, and the Labor Party leader who appointed him, call the move a historic step toward equality and integration.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's follow up on a first this week for the 59 year history of Israel. The government approved the appointment of the first Muslim and Arab cabinet minister. The new minister and the Labor Party leader who appointed him call the move a historic step for equality and integration.

Israeli Arabs make up about 20 percent of the country's population and have longed complained of discriminatory policies that treat them like second class citizens. But the appointment has sparked opposition from the Arab-Israeli parties and from a right-wing ultra-nationalist party.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Raleb Majadele, a 54-year-old Labor Party member of the Knesset, or parliament, has spent the day jumping from meeting to meeting, interview to interview.

Mr. RALEB MAJADELE (Israeli Labor Party): (Speaking foreign language)

WESTERVELT: Sitting in his small office in the heart of the parliament building with a bodyguard nearby, Majadele looks a little frazzled, late in the first day of the job as a new cabinet minister in the fragile coalition government headed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. But the former Workers Council organizer says he's elated by the chance to serve as something of a trailblazer for Arab-Israeli politicians.

Mr. MAJADELE: (Through translator) Everybody agrees that this is historic. For more than 58 years, there hasn't been a Muslim and Arab cabinet minister. I hope that we in the Labor Party do everything we can to justify this. I believe we'll bring about change for all citizens of Israel and for Arab-Israelis in particular.

WESTERVELT: Arab-Israelis have long been underrepresented in the government commensurate with their population numbers. Today, there are 13 Arabs in the 120 seat parliament. Arab-Israeli citizens have lower income and education levels than their Jewish counterparts. And Arab-Israeli town leaders complain that they receive second-rate municipal services and less funding.

Labor Party leader and defense minister Amir Peretz tapped Majadele, an obscure backbench lawmaker to fill a cabinet post vacated after a Labor minister quit to protest the cabinet appointment of Avigdor Lieberman from the ultra-nationalist Israel Beytenu, or Israel Our Homeland Party. Labor Party leaders and others have called Lieberman's political views racist and exclusionary.

And while Majadele calls his own appointment historic and precedent-setting, all three Arab-Israeli parties have called it a sell-out.

Dr. HANNA SWAID (Hadash Party): It is not really a historic change regarding the Arab population of the state of Israel.

WESTERVELT: Arab Knesset member Dr. Hanna Swaid is with the Hadash Party. He says the appointment is a self-serving move by Peretz, the embattled Labor leader and defense chief, whose popularity has crashed following last summer's war with Hezbollah. Swaid charges that Peretz is merely trying to shore up Arab support within his party ahead of key leadership voting this spring.

Dr. SWAID: If Mr. Peretz believes in inclusion of an Arab minister in this government, why he didn't do that in the beginning of his government eight months ago.

WESTERVELT: But Swaid's larger complaint is that Majadele is giving what he calls a seal of approval to racial discrimination by sitting in the cabinet with Lieberman. Lieberman and his party advocate redrawing Israel's borders to exclude most of the country's Arab-Israelis.

Dr. SWAID: This is a racist agenda of Israel Beytenu. I don't think that it is appropriate for an Arab minister to sit side by side with a minister who represents such policies.

WESTERVELT: The only cabinet minister to vote against Majadele's appointment this week was Avigdor Lieberman. Like the Arab parties, Lieberman denounced the appointment as a cynical ploy by Peretz. And he insisted he has nothing against an Arab or any other minority serving in the cabinet. Israel Beytenu Knesset member Israel Hasson says the party's opposition is based solely on politics, but Hasson also questions how a Muslim and Arab could be trusted with state secrets, if, as expected, Majadele is given the cabinet portfolio that includes access to classified scientific research projects.

Mr. ISRAEL HASSON (Israel Beytenu): Now, minister assigned in Israel, he involved very high top secret in Israel. We cannot bluff ourselves. Israel cannot share.

WESTERVELT: Opposition to Majadele was not limited to Lieberman and Arab-Israeli parties. Members of the Druze Arab minority within Majadele's own Labor Party complained bitterly that far more qualified Druze Labor members have been passed over for the cabinet post.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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