For Arab-Israeli voters, local needs come first

But Israeli decision to bar activist's re-election bid could create political hero

January 07, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TAYBEH, Israel - Potholes filled with rainwater and mud make the roads virtually impassable. Raw sewage runs through open ditches. Schools are overcrowded. Crime and drug abuse are soaring.

The Arab-Israeli residents of this town, a rough-and-tumble collection of drab buildings where everything seems to be crumbling, find those problems far more compelling than the peculiar travails of fellow resident Ahmad Tibi, a member of Israel's parliament.

Israel's central election committee barred Tibi last week from running in parliamentary elections Jan. 28, accusing him of supporting terrorist organizations that target Israel.

Tibi and another barred Arab-Israeli, Azmi Bishara, are appealing to Israel's Supreme Court, which is expected to decide their eligibility this week in a case that tests how much and what kind of dissent the country will tolerate amid the escalating conflict with the Palestinians.

"If the court will deal with legal issues and not political motivation, I will win," Tibi said in an interview. "The whole accusation that I am a supporter of terror is provocative, mistaken and anti-democratic. For Israel, democracy seems to mean the rights of the majority to rule and dictate."

But in Tibi's hometown, residents appear indifferent. In keeping with the adage that all politics is local, people complain that Tibi cares more about Palestinians in the nearby West Bank than he does for his own constituency.

"We need somebody who shows us respect," said Mahmoud Hajyehya, an unemployed 23-year-old who spends his afternoons playing cards in a coffee shop. "He should be taking care of my problems here, and not issues of a Palestinian state."

Hajyehya, who said he has been unable to find a job for more than two years, ranked his priorities: "Myself, my family, my house, my village. And then you can talk about outside things."

The Arab residents of Israel number about 1.1 million and represent 17 percent of eligible voters. They share a unique perspective, as Arab citizens of Israel who can vote and, in theory, enjoy all the benefits and legal rights of Jewish citizens.

But they feel like members of an underclass - treated with suspicion, singled out for police checks in major cities and restaurants, and given disproportionately low government funding for schools, roads and housing.

Taybeh residents are near enough to the West Bank to see the cities of Tulkarm and Qalqilya, under the rule of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat but occupied by the Israeli army. They can hear the gunfire when Israeli tanks roll in, and they support their brethren in their desire for an independent Palestinian state.

But they have their own needs. Arab-Israelis blame Israel for their difficult living conditions, but say they want more from the 10 Arab-Israeli members of the 120-seat parliament - members who wield little influence but remain Arab citizens' most visible link to the government.

Arabs would like to see their representatives unite to become an effective voting bloc and force other factions to treat their concerns seriously.

"The politicians only come around when there are elections," said Imad Masarwah, a 37-year-old bus driver in Taybeh. "Instead of talking about the West Bank and Yasser Arafat all the time, they should be talking about my life here."

Unlike Palestinians in the West Bank, Arab-Israelis can move freely in Israel, and they see the paved streets, large schools, playgrounds and bike paths - amenities that do not exist in places such as Taybeh.

"We know we will never be equal with the Israelis," Masarwah said. "But all we want are the basic things that we need to live our lives. Just fix the holes in our roads."

Still, there is a profound sense of loyalty here; even those who openly dislike Tibi say they want to vote for his Arab Movement for Change party now that Israel says he cannot run. By barring Tibi and Bishara, Israel may have created political heroes.

"The most important thing is to have an Arab party," said Omar Hajyehya, 35, a distant relative of Mahmoud's. "I want to vote for Tibi simply because Israel says he can't participate in the election. It is all politics. Israel doesn't want us to have a say in anything."

The vote to bar Tibi went against the opinion of the election committee chairman, Mishael Cheshin, a Supreme Court justice who called Tibi's politics offensive, but said: "Israel's democracy is strong and can tolerate irregular cases."

U.S. officials also have stepped into the fray. Last week, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters that American officials were following Israeli elections closely, saying, "We're interested in broad participation in the political process in Israel, as we are elsewhere."

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