Next 'Arab Idol' May Be Israeli

Manal Mousa and Haitham Khalaily have traveled to an enemy country – Lebanon – and endured Israeli security interrogations in their quest for the crown.

Areej Hazboun
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Areej Hazboun

AP -- Two young Israeli-Arabs are breaking taboos – and laws – by seeking to win "Arab Idol," the Arab world's leading TV song competition currently being taped in Beirut, Lebanon.

In their attempt to make it big in the Arab world, Manal Mousa, 25, from the Galilee village of Deir Al-Assad, and Haitham Khalaily, 24, from Majd Al-Krum, also in the Galilee, have traveled to an enemy country – Lebanon – and endured Israeli security interrogations.

The two singers are competing for more than just fame: they want to be a part of a cultural world that has been largely off limits to them because of the decades-long Arab-Israeli conflict.

Many identify as Palestinians, watch Arab satellite television and dream of traveling throughout the Middle East. But their Israeli citizenship bars them from most Arab countries, which prohibit entry to Israeli passport holders.

That includes the Lebanese capital of Beirut, where the show is currently being taped.

Mousa and Khalaily were among more than two dozen Palestinians, from both Israel and the West Bank, chosen in auditions in March to advance to the next round. The auditions were held in the West Bank, for the first time ever, but the second round was scheduled for Beirut.

Using their Israeli passports, the two crossed into neighboring Jordan then boarded a plane for Beirut. At the Lebanese airport, they presented travel documents issued by the Palestinian Authority especially for the trip, a Palestinian interior ministry official said.

In Beirut, they passed all three rounds of auditions and were chosen to be among the 26 final contestants from around the Arab world — the first time Arabs from Israel have ever been selected for the show.

Shortly after returning to Israel in May to wait for the show's taping, Mousa and Khalaily were interrogated by the Shin Bet. Their Israeli passports were confiscated, but soon returned to them after the intervention of human rights groups, Mousa's family said.

The same month the two singers traveled to Lebanon, Israel arrested a 23-year-old Israeli-Arab journalist returning from a conference there. Officials initially thought he was recruited by militants but never laid charges.

Travel to Lebanon is punishable under Israeli law by four years in jail or paying a fine, said Aram Mahameed, a lawyer from the Arab-Israeli rights group Adalah, whom Khalaily's family consulted after the contestant was interrogated.

Though Jewish and Arab Israelis have faced indictment for traveling to Lebanon, their trials generally do not proceed unless they are accused of other crimes, he said, adding that Jewish Israeli journalists who have gone to Lebanon have not been questioned upon their return.

Mousa and Khalaily are now in Beirut taping the show, which is airing weekly on the Arab satellite channel MBC. Show producers said in a statement that contestants were unavailable for media interviews due to "exhausting preparations and tight production deadlines."

Last year, Lina Makhoul, an Arab-Israeli, won the Israeli TV singing show "The Voice," but her success has been confined to Israel. By contrast, when Mohammed Assaf, a Palestinian from Gaza, won "Arab Idol" last year, he catapulted to fame, and he continues to perform before Arab audiences throughout the Middle East, the United States and Europe.

Though some fans in the contestants' home base know by word of mouth that they live in Israel, viewers wouldn't know by watching the show.

Banners on the screen label them as hailing from Palestine, and the show makes no reference to their connections to Israel.

"Arab Idol" is largely cut off from the singers' fan base in Israel. The show provides no local phone numbers for Arabs in Israel to dial to vote for contestants, so every week their families drive to the West Bank and use a Palestinian cellphone provider to cast their votes.

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