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When Ariel Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan was becoming the dominant feature of the Israeli political experience, Arab MKs from Hadash-Ta'al (Mohammed Barakeh, Issam Makhoul and Ahmed Tibi) and from Balad (Azmi Bishara, Jamal Zahalka, and Wasal Taha) hurried to publish articles in the Israeli and Arab press - even before the plan was brought to a vote - explaining why they planned to vote against the plan. Their theme was that the disengagement from Gaza was meant to consolidate the Israeli hold on the occupied West Bank.

MKs Abdulmalik Dehamshe and Talab al-Sana from the United Arab List announced immediately that they would support the disengagement and stuck to that position. But that does not mean that their position is understandable or justifiable.

Before the ink was dry and for unconvincing reasons, the zigzagging began. With the arrival of the evacuation-compensation bill to the Knesset Constitution, Justice and Law Committee, a dramatic change took place. Barakeh supported the bill and so did Bishara. It was an opportunistic move, and the surrealistic sight made the paradox all the more tangible, as the chairman of the coalition, MK Gideon Sa'ar of the Likud, voted against the bill and the Arab opposition MKs voted in favor.

The vote in the committee was a dress rehearsal for the vote in the plenum. The six MKs from Hadash-Ta'al and Balad abstained, granting the prime minister a safety net. It could be said that the Arab MKs wanted to pretend they really weren't helping out Sharon.

The Arab Palestinian public in Israel is watching, seeing the dramatic changes in positions of "principle." On judgment day, Election Day, it will know what to do. If anyone believes they can convince the electorate of the meaning of the changes, they are in for a surprise: there's no more herd culture among Arab voters. Moreover, to use a term from the world of soccer, it can be said that the Arab players scored an own-goal in overtime, and it was the golden goal that decided the game.

The cardinal question must be asked: why did the Arab MKs not conduct discussions among themselves to reach an agreement on their vote? Those MKs now face a test of credibility no less important: the vote on the state budget at the end of the month. The Sharon government could fall if it does not manage to pass the budget. The Hebrew media is beginning to sprinkle reports that say the prime minister is counting on the minority's votes, that last week he met with MKs Dehamshe and al-Sana, who made demands for advancement of the Arab community in Israel. This time, the Arab MKs preferred not to coordinate their positions as well. If those reports are true, there is a profound leadership crisis in the Arab community.

History shows that the Arab MKs are not players in the game of musical chairs in the Knesset. It's not because they don't want to be players, but because the Israeli establishment is not interested in their involvement in fateful votes. It is inconceivable that the government leaves them out of the game, but when it needs their votes, the government gives them the illusion they will get a few crumbs for their voters if and when they vote in favor of the budget, which is anti-social and harms the poor, starting with the Arab residents of the state.

The argument by the prime minister's men that the fall of the government over the budget would stop the disengagement plan and lead to new elections is not convincing - and that's an understatement. If the Arab MKs want to correct the fatal mistake that they made in the vote on the disengagement - since abstention is also support for Sharon - they must announce publicly that they will vote against the budget and thus keep their promise to their voters made on Election Day. But if they start inventing excuses to abstain or even support the budget, they will lose the little confidence that the Arab electorate still has in them. They must accept the fact that their voters did not send them to save the rightist Sharon government.

The writer is editor of the Israeli-Arab newspaper, Kol Al-Arab.