Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Will an Arab minister make Israel less Jewish?

Ed O'Loughlin:

ONE of Israel's ruling parties has sparked a race row by denouncing the appointment of the country's first Arab minister as a blow against "the Jewish character" of the state.

Esterina Tartman, chairwoman of the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party, said that the Defence Minister, Amir Peretz, was promoting "assimilation" when he named an Arab legislator, Raleb Majadele, as Science Minister.

Mr Peretz is head of the moderate Labour Party and deputy leader of the ruling centre-right coalition.

Ms Tartman told Israeli Army radio that the move was "a lethal blow to Zionism". According to the newspaper Ma'ariv, she also remarked "this pestilence must be burned".

"Peretz is making a sacrifice of Zionism," she said. "He has crossed all the red lines. Israel is a Jewish state and should be run according to Jewish principles."

Ms Tartman's party leader, a Avigdor Lieberman, a Russian immigrant, called on Mr Peretz to resign as defence minister, although he said he had "no problem" with the appointment of an Arab. "The problem here is the timing and the fact that a minister in the State of Israel is using the tools he has wrongfully in order to promote himself politically," he said.

While Arabs make up about a fifth of Israel's population and are able to vote in elections, the Israeli parliament has traditionally isolated Arab members from political decision making. In the past any Zionist party seen to be actively courting Arab support risked losing votes among its Jewish constituency.

Mr Lieberman is one of the rising stars of Israeli politics, and is now ranked second in popularity after another right-winger, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Since joining Ehud Olmert's cabinet as minister for strategic threats last year, he has publicly advocated the Cyprus-style expulsion of ethnic minorities and the shooting of Arab-Israeli parliamentarians who visited Damascus.

Ms Tartman's anti-Arab outbursts were strongly condemned by several Jewish mainstream parties. One Labour MP called on Mr Peretz to leave the coalition rather than sit with Mr Lieberman's "racist" party. Michael Eitan of the Likud party, said he "rejected with disgust Ms Tartman's racist pronouncements".

Row over Israeli-Arab cabinet appointment

Down with racism

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