The Path From Bank to Cabinet

Samer Haj-Yehia, the newly appointed chairman of Bank Leumi.
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This week, when Israeli Ethiopians’ rage erupted over the killing of 18-year-old Solomon Teka by a policeman, actually began with good news when it comes to Israeli diversity. Dr. Samer Haj-Yehia was selected as chairman of Bank Leumi’s board, becoming the first Arab to be appointed to such a senior position in the Israeli banking world.

Haj-Yehia was selected for his qualifications and for his experience as a bank director in recent years, without affirmative action or outside intervention. His appointment was received in the Arab community with delight and a sense of accomplishment.

In recent years, Knesset member Ahmad Tibi has spearheaded a campaign to integrate men and women from the Arab community into the public service, and now many Israeli Arabs can be found in key positions at the Finance Ministry – the place where the greatest influence is wielded on Israeli society and the Israeli economy.

The pride in Haj-Yehia is well warranted. In fact, with regard to the health care system, Israeli Arabs are well integrated in senior positions, and they also have respectable representation on Israel’s national soccer team, but this is the first such senior appointment in the financial system.

And there is one place where you don’t see Arabs trying to fit in and lead and that’s around the cabinet table. The Arab parties, Hadash-Ta’al and United Arab List-Balad, aren’t interested in joining any Israeli government. At most, they are prepared to be part of a bloc led by the left that would make the formation of a right-wing coalition impossible, as they did in support of the formation of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government in 1992.

The reason for their reticence to join the cabinet is the occupation. As long as Israel holds onto the occupied territories, Arab parties are not prepared to provide their stamp of approval. Their approach is understandable, certainly to anyone who believes in the two-state solution. But there’s another side to it: It’s an own goal, in soccer parlance.

It’s an approach that makes life easy for the Jewish parties, which engage in discourse among themselves, saying “we won’t sit down with the Arabs.” At the same time, the Arab parties are leaving the centers of power, the government budgets and the positions of influence in the hands of the Jewish majority.

Haj-Yehia’s selection is an important step in integrating Israel’s Arabs into the financial sector, but it is also a reminder that the real breakthrough with regard to shared lives between Jews and Arabs in Israel will come on the day on which cabinet ministers representing the Arab community are sitting around the cabinet table.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.