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Israel: Prime Minister Race Includes First Israeli-Arab

Jerusalem, 12 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The upcoming Israeli election is the first in the history of the Jewish state to see an Israeli-Arab running for prime minister.

The candidate, Azmi Bishara, is an Arab deputy in the outgoing parliament and is given no chance of winning on Monday, even by his own Arab National Democratic Alliance party. But the race by Bishara -- who heads the Balad party list and is a former philosophy professor and communist -- has caused a stir for two reasons.

First, Bishara's bid for prime minister is focusing attention on the demands of Israeli Arabs for more equal rights as a minority which today numbers some one million people, or about one-fifth of the total population.

And second, it comes at a time when Israel's Jewish electorate is highly fragmented over campaign issues, making Arab voters a potentially important factor in helping deciding what new government comes to power. Arabs number 11 percent of all Israeli voters and are being hotly courted by Jewish candidates on all sides -- from ultra-conservative parties to the mainstream Labor, Centrist and Likud blocs.

Mahmud Muhareb, a spokesman for Bishara, told RFE/RL in Jerusalem recently that the candidate hopes that by running for prime minister he can highlight both Arab demands and their strength as a voting bloc to obtain them.

"Running for the premiership is educational for the Jews and Arabs alike. Every fifth person in Israel is an Arab [and] running for the premiership means that the Arabs in Israel deal with their citizenship seriously and they want to tell the Israeli Jews that we are here and Israeli society should collectively recognize the Arabs as a national minority and recognize their collective rights."

According to official statistics, almost a third of Israel's Arab population lives below the poverty line, compared with 13 percent of the Jewish majority. There are restrictions on what land Arabs can buy and housing benefits are reported to be difficult to obtain. Education for Arabs is permitted in the Arabic language, with the curriculum set by the Ministry of Education.

Bishara has sought to mobilize the Arab electorate by calling both for more equal rights and for Israel to rid itself of state symbols which reflect only the Jewish majority. He has called for redesigning the Israeli flag without the Star of David and for a new national anthem. He has also recruited a key Palestinian figure -- Ahmed Tibi, who most recently was a senior policy advisor to Yasser Arafat -- to run for the Knesset with Bishara's National Democratic Party.

In making such demands, Bishara has won the support of many Arabs. But his long-shot campaign has angered some Arab political leaders, who say the main effect of his candidacy for prime minister has been to split the Arab electorate. Two other Israeli-Arab party lists -- the United Arab List and Hadash (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) -- have said they will not support him and say that any vote for him is wasted because he has no chance to win.

Bishara's critics also charge that his campaign is damaging the Arab minority's long-standing political alliance with Israel's left-leaning Labor party just when it is in a tight race with Likud. They fear that diluting the leftist vote will only help give Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu another term. Traditionally, Likud has been less sympathetic to the demands of Israeli-Arab Knesset members and during the last three years Netanyahu's government has toughened the peace process with the Palestinians.

How much Bishara is actually splitting the Arab vote is hard to determine. At the same time he has sought to rally Arabs behind him, Israeli parties both on the left and right are courting Arab voters too. The result is a complicated political picture which already includes some unlikely partnerships.

One group actively courting Arab voters is the ultra-conservative Shas Party, which emphasizes the religious traditions and values of conservative Sephardic Jews -- those who came to Israel from North Africa, the Middle East and Iran. It has built a party strong enough to take 10 seats in the last Knesset by developing religious, educational and welfare institutions for the Sephardic population, which traditionally has felt less privileged in Israel compared to Ashkenazi, or European, Jews.

Shas, which holds the interior ministry under Netanyahu's outgoing government, has more recently sought to build its own bargaining position by courting Arab communities. As interior minister, party leader Arieh Deri reportedly doled out generous budgets to Arab-populated municipalities before he was convicted last month for taking bribes and illegally channeling state funds to Shas.

Another small party pursuing the same goal is the United Torah Judaism, which appeals mostly to ultra-orthodox Ashkenazis and supports Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza. Its leader, Meir Porush, has used his position as deputy minister for housing and construction to grant some 40 million dollars a year to Arab housing projects.

The campaign tactics appear to be effective. Recent polls show that ultra-orthodox parties have doubled their support from the Arab community since the last election, from 5 percent of the Arab electorate to 10 percent.

The Labor party, which in the current election is leading the leftist One Israel coalition, is fighting equally hard to keep its traditional hold on the Arab vote. The party has promised to push for greater equality for Israeli-Arabs and for faster peace negotiations with Yasser Arafat if it is elected.

Bishara's spokesman Muhareb says that the Arab vote will split among Arab and Jewish parties but that fielding an Arab candidate for prime minister is the best chance to increase the community's bargaining position in Israeli politics. He says that Bishara sought to unite the other Arab lists behind him but that they refused because they fear weakening the Labor party on May 17.

"We tried to reach a consensus among the Arabs [but] they did not agree. They until now are not able to liberate themselves from automatically supporting the candidate of the Labor Party. We believe that this policy is wrong, because it is wrong to put all Arab votes in the pocket of the candidate of the Labor party in Israel. If you do so, you will not be able to bargain with [it] about your demands. In politics, you have to use all your power in order to get your rights."

Muhareb predicts that there will be two rounds in the upcoming election for prime minister, which require any candidate to get more than 50 percent of the vote to win. He says Bishara is certain to be eliminated May 17 but his real impact will be seen in any second round, which would be held June 1. At that time, Muhareb hopes to see Labor looking for all the votes it can muster to take the premiership and striking a better-than-average deal with Bishara's voters to gain their support.

(This is the third and final part of an RFE/RL series on the Israeli elections.)