First Arab, Then Israeli and Finally Palestinian

At the end of the interview, when he rose to escort me from his new room in the Knesset building, Minister Ghaleb Majadele promised that he would change the world together with Amir Peretz. He meant that he, the first Arab minister in the history of the state, and Peretz, the first chair of the Ministerial Committee for the Non-Jewish Sector, would be the harbingers of equality between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

Only three months ago Majadele said of that same committee, which was part of the Olmert-Peretz deal for bringing Avigdor Lieberman into the government, "They think that they can pull the wool over our eyes with a newspaper headline? This is a committee without a budget. What, are we in a military administration?" He also told the secretary of the Labor Party's Arab district, "It's an insult to our intelligence. Lieberman is joining so Peretz can head another committee? Doesn't he have enough work?"

Majadele, then "only" an Arab MK, was very adamant about rejecting the possibility that his party colleagues would sit around the cabinet table and eat burekas with Lieberman. "We cannot accept the existence of someone who rejects our very existence and thinks we have no place in Israel," declared Majadele.

"This is not a matter of love and hate. After all, he wants a Jewish state without Arabs." And as though she wanted to prove that joining the cabinet has not changed this desire of Yisrael Beiteinu, MK Esterina Tartman, one of Lieberman's disciples, declared that the appointment of an Arab minister is like "raising the ax on the trunk called Judaism," and even called "to get rid of the plague."

Israeli politics once again played a practical joke. Ironically, or cynically, Majadele has become the only Arab minister in Israel, thanks to the only Jewish minister who resigned from the government in protest against the inclusion of a party whose platform calls for the expulsion of Majadele, along with his home and his belongings, from Israel. The new minister was clearly aware of the cloud hanging over his appointment. He has a ready answer for anyone who asks him about it. He says it is not true that he supported Labor's resignation from the government, and that he even begged Ophir Pines-Paz to remain. He says that Lieberman and his policy "are not the problem of Israeli Arabs, but of the entire democratic and sane Israeli society that believes in peace."

Majadele says he told Olmert that Lieberman would be an obstacle to the diplomatic process. "I claimed that without a peace process, the government has no right to exist and that the Labor Party would not be a part of it. And that if there is a diplomatic process, Lieberman would leave.

"When Amir Peretz first offered me the option of being a minister, I really hesitated, but I couldn't refuse. Once, I did reject such an offer. That was when Fuad [Binyamin Ben-Eliezer], who was then party chair, offered me Saleh Tarif's seat. But that was during the height of the intifada, when the Muqata was surrounded, when the government wanted to eliminate the Palestinian Authority, and when Sharon said that there was no difference between Netzarim and Tel Aviv. Today the situation is different."

How long are you giving the Olmert government to get out of the freeze and begin a diplomatic process? Do you have a red line?

Majadele:"I don't want to threaten. Interview me in another half a year."

But you are joining a government that is rejecting the offer of an Arab country, Syria, to begin negotiations.

"It's neither right nor logical for an Israeli government to reject offers by the Syrians to conduct a dialogue. Negotiations are conducted with enemies, and it is inconceivable that our future will be decided by another country. Why are the Americans allowed to conduct a dialogue with the Iranians, who openly want to destroy Israel, as long as they can leave Iraq honorably, and we aren't allowed to talk to the Syrians? We don't have to sacrifice our own interests because of American considerations. I call on the prime minister to allow talks with Syria in any way and through any channel he sees fit. A responsible government cannot allow itself to refuse to conduct negotiations with any Arab actor."

Even with Hamas?

"Hamas was chosen in elections that we and the Americans called for. But why should we enter this track, of recognition or non-recognition of Israel, as a condition for talks? I don't understand Israeli thinking on this issue. After all, the negotiations are in the hands of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who was elected by a larger majority than the Hamas government. He has full authority to conduct negotiations and to advance any diplomatic process in the name of the Palestinian public. The unilateral disengagement was a mistake. We should have credited the achievement to the head of the PA. That would have given the Palestinians the feeling that we want peace, and that we appreciate and cooperate with their leader. Instead we called Abu Mazen a chick without feathers. That's not how one treats a partner. This is all related to the present anarchy in Gaza. What happens there is important to us, too. Anyone who is happy that Arabs are killing Arabs is making a big mistake. When my neighbor is hungry, my home is in danger and I cannot sleep peacefully."

Zohir Andreas wrote this week in Haaretz that he is embarrassed about what is happening in Gaza.

"The vast majority in Gaza knows that what is happening there is not good for them - it's only a small group of people who believe the contrary to be true. The mother who blesses her son before he embarks on a suicide attack does not represent a nation's culture. She represents its distress. We don't have a culture of murder. I'm not familiar with such values in Islam, nor does it advance the Palestinian interest."

Do you consider yourself to be a Palestinian?

"I'm an Israeli Arab of Palestinian descent. Just as a Libyan born here would say that he is an Israeli Arab of Libyan descent."

You forgot to mention that you're a Muslim.

"The moment I get into the subject of religion, I can't say that I'm a Palestinian Arab who lives in Israel. That sounds negative, and why should I say something negative?"

Are you in favor of the right of return?

"Like demographics, the issue of the right of return is a kind of scare tactic. The demographic demon is meant to scare the Jews so they'll want to make peace. Even in another 15 years there won't be an Arab majority in Israel. The higher the Arabs climb on the ladder of advancement and education, the fewer children they will bring into the world. I'm the eldest son in a family of 10 boys and 4 girls. I have two sons and two daughters. The Palestinians are pragmatic people, and the moment the Israeli government makes progress in peace negotiations, they will make a wise and pragmatic decision regarding the solution to the refugee problem."

In Jewish youth movements abroad, it's very common to ask the banal question: "When the U.S. or Australia plays soccer against Israel, who do you root for?" If an Israeli team plays a Palestinian team, who would you root for?

"That's a dilemma I don't wish on anyone. Socially, in terms of mentality, I'll root for the Israeli team. Emotionally, for the Palestinians. I hope that the Israeli team will include a number of Arab players. That would make things much easier for me. When they play 'Hatikvah,' I stand up. When the anthem speaks to me, as an Israeli-Arab citizen, I'll be happy to sing it, too. Why do I have to be tested on the Song of Songs or on the Book of Ruth? If I decide to study them, fine, but in a progressive democratic society it's not right that Jews should dictate their culture to the Arabs. The time has come for Jewish children to begin studying Arabic in fourth grade, just as my children began to study Hebrew in fourth grade. That doesn't mean the differences between us should be erased. We can live together even when I retain my Arab culture."

Were you insulted, as an Israeli citizen, by the claim that you cannot be the minister of science because of state secrets?

"I'm not insulted. I only want to be put to the test. The entire issue of state secrets in the Science Ministry is nonsense. The politicians are ostensibly hiding behind the scientists. Ophir Pines-Paz has already stated that there are no secrets in this ministry."

Public relations stunt

Even Olmert, who was not enthusiastic, to put it mildly, about Labor's decision to have Majadele join the cabinet, has benefited. Majadele's appointment as a minister in a Jewish state is receiving good press coverage internationally. No public relations broadcast can match that, in a week when Arabs are killing one another in Gaza and blowing up Jews in Eilat. The prime minister has no personal problem with Majadele, or with the appointment of an Arab minister. He simply wasn't crazy about the idea of Peretz increasing his declining strength in the cabinet and the party. Alongside the shadow of Pines-Paz, who resigned, Majadele's appointment is also clouded by the primaries. The proximity to Labor Party registration and to Peretz's battle over his political future taint the important event of an Arab minister's appointment with the scent of cheap politics.

"The historical decision is not dwarfed because of circumstances," says Majadele, rejecting these arguments. "When Peretz doesn't make decisions, they say he's failed. When he makes a decision, they say it's political. Write that the largest and leading group in the Labor party is that of Minister Majadele. Our district will greatly influence the party and we're not ashamed of our power. They won't say that we're a chick without feathers."

He makes sure not to say a bad word about Peretz's rivals. He only wants to repeat his suggestion to Ehud Barak, "That he go to speak with the families of those murdered in October 2000 and repair what went wrong under his leadership. Why shouldn't he raise a few million dollars and contribute some of his money as well, to be an example to others? Let him build a cultural center, or a scholarship fund in the name of the victims. In the 1996 elections, he received 80 percent of the Arab vote. Don't they deserve to have him return to them, not for the primaries, but in an honest manner and out of goodwill?"

The members of the Or Commission, who investigated the October 2000 events, warned that without a change in the situation of the Arab minority, we will be in big trouble. As chair of the Knesset Interior Committee you dealt a great deal with this report. Has there been a change? What is your opinion on the documents written recently, particularly on that of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee?

"If the government doesn't work determinedly to reduce the gaps between Jews and Arabs, we'll find ourselves in a worse situation in 2010 than in October 2000. Because of the conflict with the Palestinians, the government hasn't internalized the need to ensure the rights of the Arab citizens of Israel and to close the gaps. We're not on the government's agenda. If you don't give your son warmth, you won't receive love. Ideological issues should also be discussed, but first of all you have to provide answers to matters of local government, education and employment. Any attempt to disengage the Arab minority will be like a boomerang, and I'm worried about this tendency. Those on both sides, who want to distance us from one another, want to make our life miserable. We mustn't give in to them."