Omar Nasser
Arabeh Mayor Omar Nasser Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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Like many others, Omar Nasser, the mayor of Arabeh, was glued to the television Tuesday evening watching Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu address the U.S. Congress. But left him feeling extremely disturbed. He did not like the fact that the prime minister kept referring to Israeli Arabs as the only Arabs in the region. And he is not willing to recognize the State of Israel as a Jewish state, as Netanyahu demands. Any such recognition, he insists, runs counter to the interests of Arabs and other non-Jewish citizens of the state. Still, he has no problem hosting right-wing Israeli ministers at his office.

Omar Nasser, why was it important to you to watch Netanyahu's address?

It was a week of speeches, and everyone was talking about this speech. There were even some who promised a surprise. There were also expectations that Netanyahu would address the Palestinian problem at length, and I, as a member of this people, wanted to hear what the prime minister would say and how he would respond to the remarks made by U.S. President Barack Obama. I'm pretty sure that it wasn't just me, but that many many Arab citizens watched his speech.

Were you surprised when the prime minister spoke about the rights of Israeli Arabs and how they enjoy democracy more than Arabs in any other country?

It was unbearable hypocrisy. The prime minister is mistaken and misleading, and it's a disgrace that members of Congress applauded him. The prime minister chose to compare democracy in Israel to the Arab world. But if he is so proud of democracy in Israel, then why doesn't he compare it to democracy in Canada or in Sweden or in Switzerland?

Yet, if you were the mayor of a town in an Arab country, you wouldn't dare attack a prime minister in this way?

True. But again, don't compare me to Libya and Sudan; compare me to Switzerland and Canada, where no one questions the right of someone else to voice an opinion; I agree that when it comes to freedom of expression, there's a huge difference between Israel and the Arab countries. But let's look at it another way: Is there a democratic country in the world where there are unrecognized villages? In Israel there are. Is there a country in the world where there are laws that allow for admissions committees to prevent citizens from living in certain communities? In Israel there are. Is there a country with a true democracy where a bill like the Nakba Law can be passed or where citizenship can be revoked, including citizenship of tens of thousands of Palestinians from East Jerusalem? Is there a democratic state that rules over another people as Israel does over the Palestinians?

Nevertheless, you and many others perhaps agree with the prime minister that democracy should be enacted in the Arab world?

It's not a function of the prime minister's wish. Everyone wants there to be democratic regimes in the Arab world and for the leaders there to be elected in free elections. So we support the revolutions in the Arab world. In my opinion, what is being done in Libya or Yemen or Syria to these citizens is crimes against humanity.

The prime minister is constantly asking Abu Mazen to recognize the State of Israel as a Jewish state in return for recognition of the Palestinian state. As a citizen of the state, do you share this position?

Certainly not. It's as if we as Arab citizens of the state are living on the margins. Obviously the State of Israel has a Jewish majority and the character of the state is Jewish. But why is it essential to ask others to recognize this as a condition for advancing the peace process? It's a demand that poses an obstacle and has very severe consequences, both for the right of return and for our status as citizens of the State of Israel. The Arabs in Israel today feel that the threat of transfer is not in the realm of an ideological concept, but a real danger, with some cabinet ministers and coalition parties supporting it. We want be equal citizens and have equal rights in the state.

Which country would you like to live in?

First, I am staying in Arabeh. I was born here, as were my parents and grandparents, and I live in a place that has a history going back 3,500 years. We are not foreigners and we are not settlers and we did not occupy or take over the land. I want to live with everyone as a citizen with equal rights. Not recognizing a Jewish state is not a threat to the Jews, including our neighbors in nearby communities. It is a threat to us as Arab citizens and I explained why.

So the demand to tear up the agreement with Hamas is, in your opinion, also not legitimate?

It's a lot of nerve and condescension. Israel always claimed that because there were two governments and divisions, it was impossible to conduct negotiations. Now that there is a reconciliation agreement, they're demanding that it be torn up. Hamas represents part of the Palestinian people, and the entire Palestinian people, as well as those living in Arab countries and in a sizable share of the Western world, support the reconciliation.

But the prime minister says and the Americans agree that Hamas is terrorist organization that does not recognize Israel?

Hamas specifically stated that it supports the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, and in my opinion, this provides a clear answer. It is also clear that the state alongside the Palestinian state will be the State of Israel. This is apparent to all, and these things were clearly elucidated in the recent Cairo agreement as well.

Do you as a mayor and citizen not feel that you have equal rights?

It depends on the circumstances. There are situations where it applies and others where it doesn't. I enjoy rights as a mayor, but does the Arab population or do Arab citizens enjoy full rights? It's clear that as long as there are unrecognized communities, as long as there is discrimination when it comes to budgets, and as long as there are racist laws and there are many examples of this, it's impossible to speak of equality and democracy in the fullest sense.

You paint a grim picture and criticize the prime minister, but you yourself have been attacked in your community because you receive ministers, including those from Yisrael Beiteinu?

That is correct. As you speak with me, the city council is discussing this issue. At the council, I receive ministers and professional representatives from across the political spectrum. They visit me and I visit their offices, and we discuss professional issues pertaining to community development. There is nothing wrong with this. Arabeh welcomed ministers Aharonovitch and Landau and we talked about professional issues such as Arabeh's participation in the Violence-Free City project. What's wrong with that? I'm not discussing political issues with them or their party's platform or the platform of the party I belong to, and by this I mean Hadash. It has no impact on my political positions. I was elected to serve the public and the people in the community.