Going Strong Among the Druze

Druze voters are not worried by the idea of `transfer.' New immigrants believe there must be a state for the Jews, yet they are alarmed by racism. No wonder some of the hottest political names in the Arab locales are Avigdor Lieberman and Natan Sharansky.

A large elections photograph of MKs Avigdor Lieberman, Benny Elon and Zvi Hendel - the heads of the National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu - covers the picture of MK Ahmed Tibi (who is running on the Hadash-Ta'al list, following the Supreme Court decision yesterday) at the entrance to the village of Rama. The population of Rama is 6,500, one-third Druze and two-third Muslim and Christian Arabs.

This human mix brings up an interesting question: If the party's strategic plan is implemented and "an emergency regime is implemented in case of a renewal of disturbances like there were in October, 2000," will this emergency regime apply only to the Arabs, or also to the Druze?

A visual illustration of the complexity of the situation can be found opposite the house of Akram Fares, a Druze man who hosted Lieberman in his home in a campaign visit to the mixed locale. Half of a ragged Israeli flag, torn by the ravages of time or the weather, flew proudly opposite the house.

"We've decided to go with Ivet [Lieberman]," said Fares. "All the governments have not helped us, and only Ivet as minister of infrastructure put in sewers here. As you know, Ivet has affection for the Druze sector and for soldiers."

None of the disturbing questions came up at the warm, easygoing meeting at the Fares family home. Not the option of an emergency regime and not transfer, which has become the banner of the National Union. From the questions and the issues that came up in the discussion, it might have been thought that the electricity poles stuck in the middle of the road in the Druze villages - a serious safety hazard that is the result of flawed planning - are the main axis of the elections this year.

"The Jews are behaving as if we are living on the border of France and Switzerland," said Lieberman to the dozens of Druze who crowded into the house to meet the man who has done so well by them. "It must be made clear that anyone who is partner to us has taken the right step; he deserves everything. The burden of proof is on us, on the Jews. Over the years he has only lost: We have proved that anyone who has linked his fate to ours, from the first King Abdullah to the South Lebanon Army [SLA] and the collaborators in Yesha [the Hebrew acronym for Judea, Samaria and Gaza]. We behaved like madmen."

Raik Tuba, a demobilized soldier, voiced his complaints: "I served in the army near Qabatiyah [a West Bank city], and I was astonished to see how much more developed it is there than in our villages," he said. "We are asking for equality with the Druze."

This comment, from the mouth of a young Druze, sounds like a slip of the tongue, but Tuba knows full well what he is saying. In the past, the "pure" Druze locales refused to include the mixed villages (where Druze live alongside Muslims and Christians) in the development plans for the sector. And, indeed, just as the Jewish-Arab cities are very neglected, so are the mixed Druze-Arab villages. Discrimination is not a right in this country that is reserved exclusively to Jews; every sector finds someone to discriminate against.

"Maybe I will come back here as finance minister," promised Lieberman. "We will continue to take care of this."

He repeated the promise to return as finance minister throughout the campaign swing, as if attempting to implant the idea. At a dizzying pace, he went from locale to locale. Time is short and there is a lot of work, and Lieberman in any case radiates a sense that these visits too are nothing but a waste of precious time - time that could have been used to get something done. This polite impatience in fact pleased his hosts.

"The bulldozer of the country," they call him, a nickname that was once reserved for Ariel Sharon.

`Selective racism'

In the 2003 elections, the right is not exactly the right and the left has not been the left for a long time. Everyone here talks about how all the governments of the left never accomplished what Lieberman accomplished in one year, during which he brought Druze into government companies, directorates and even the board of the Israel Lands Administration.

After it gave the world the concept of "selective objection" - which is different from all-inclusive conscientious objection to serving in the military - Israel is now offering "selective racism." This is not an egalitarian view, but rather gives rewards to the "good guys" and punishment to the "bad citizens."

While it is generally said that security is the main issue in these elections, in fact in meetings with politicians, sectarian or personal problems are raised. This is true of the Druze and also of the immigrants. The immigrants' parties have long been different from what you thought. Of the eight Knesset seats that are predicted for it in the latest public opinion polls, the National Union is getting five from the immigrant public.

However, Lieberman, who sees himself as a national leader, is making efforts to stake a claim among the Druze. From Rama he went on to nearby Sajur, and from there to Yarka and Julis. In the 1999 elections, Yisrael Beiteinu won 100 of the total of 3,100 votes of eligible voters in Sajur. At the entrance to the home of the host, Kamal Ibrahim, a Druze resident who serves in the security forces estimated that they will get more this time.

"Transfer?" he rolled the word on his tongue. "In the meantime, there is no transfer. Transfer is distant and we are not included in it. Anyway, 90 percent of the men in this village serve in the security forces, many of them in elite units. Are they against transfer? Let us say that they are at least not opposed to it."

Not only does transfer not bother them, but the patronizing of the Druze by the large political parties pushes them toward the National Union. In Kamal Amin Abed al-Latif's lovely home in Julis (the bastion of MK Salah Tarif of the Labor Party), the host challenged: "Our politicians and their vote-contractors in the community - they're outdated. This is it, they're bankrupt. We see you as the representative of our community."

Not everyone in Julis accepted the hosting of Lieberman with understanding. "What's he got to do with you?" they asked Kamal Amin. Voting for the extreme right-wing party becomes a protest vote against the overlordship - against the manipulations, against the veteran establishment.

"Here in the village, Salah Tarif will not get more than 40 percent," estimated Arif Hano, a businessman from Julis. "More than half of the inhabitants will vote for the right. Transfer does not frighten us. Many people in our community do not identify with the Arabs. What did frighten us was the way Ehud Barak fled from Lebanon and abandoned the SLA. Abandoning people who worked with us, more than transfer, is what set the warning light flashing here."

Straight from Julis, Lieberman set out for Netanya, to two meetings: one with immigrants and one with veteran right-wing voters. Holding an election meeting at the Park Hotel in Netanya symbolizes the current election race. Nine months after the shocking terror attack there on Passover, 2002, the refurbished hotel looks like a monument to that incident. At the entrance to the hall where the National Union meeting was to have taken place - the same hall that hosted the celebrants on that seder night - a plaque was erected with the names of the 29 people who died in the attack. One of the reception desk clerks says that usually the plaque is stashed away in the depths of the hall, and it is pulled out when specially requested. In advance of the election meeting, the plaque was set up at the entrance to the hall.

About 150 red and blue chairs waited for comers. In the background, the election jingle of the National Union was playing, the refrain of which is "We shall expel Arafat and vote for whom? The National Union." The ultimate combination of kitsch and death.

Next to the memorial corner for Ami Hamami, the hotel manager who was killed in the terror attack, stood his two sons. One is a soldier in a combat unit and the other is a high-school student. But the result of the big preparations was a small event, because of some organizational error. The large meeting became an intimate occasion, every candidate's nightmare, three weeks before the elections. The venue was changed to the hotel lobby, where Lieberman spoke to several dozen people who had assembled about the continuing leadership crisis in Israel.

He was compensated at the immigrants' meeting in Netanya. The hall in the Goldar Hotel was completely filled by middle-aged and even elderly immigrants. "We are a bit extreme," admitted two women who came to Israel 12 years ago, with some embarrassment. "This has to be a state for Jews, not for Arabs. Jews and Arabs can't live together. The religious boys must also go to the army. Why should only our sons die? And it is also important that there shouldn't be racism against the Russians. It's a good country and it's possible to succeed, but we need a strong government, like Lieberman."

On stage, Lieberman gave them "strong leader": "The Americans offered Peres bin Laden's head," he told the audience of approximately 300, "so why don't we offer Peres Arafat's head? In fact, we have so many volunteers that we won't even need to pay money for it." The audience was thrilled.

Lieberman takes a journey through Jewish history: 43 Jews were killed in the pogroms in Kishinev (from where he himself immigrated), and a poem was written about "The City of Slaughter," whereas "in the last intifada, when there's a state and an army, more than 700 civilians have been killed. No normal state can exist like Russian roulette." The audience applauded.

But in whispers, in the long rows of chairs, the immigrants spoke about the economic decrees, about the erosion of their National Insurance Institute allotments about the need for social reform and support for the welfare state. In fact they spoke of their yearnings for socialism, without uttering that "despicable" word.

`Life' vs. `disease'

This was also the case this week at a meeting with Housing Minister Natan Sharansky, the chairman of Yisrael b'Aliyah. The streets of Arab Nazareth are decked with election photographs of MK Azmi Bishara of Balad and the Meretz "troika" aimed at the Arab sector: MK Yossi Sarid, Yossi Beilin and MK Hussniya Jabara.

Sharansky headed for a different troika - a restaurant of that name in Upper Nazareth, where nearly half the population is from the Confederation of Independent States. In the packed hall, mainly elderly immigrants gathered, and some who arrived here only recently - two definite target audiences for the party.

"I am in Israel for only 10 months, and I am not familiar with any of the parties," related Ludmilla Gerber. "They told me that Sharansky does a lot for immigrants, so I came. I know that he is from Russia, and that he was immigration minister. I came to listen."

In the front row sit Yevgeny and Mikhail, who asked to be identified only by their first names. Yevgeny is a welder who has been unemployed for three months; Mikhail, an electronics engineer, is out of work because of a disability. The political map, as they perceive it, looks like this: Lieberman is right, Sharansky is right of center; Labor and the Likud are in fact the same thing. Amram Mitzna says that he is left but he also says that terror has to be crushed. So Labor and the Likud are "life" and Meretz is a "disease."

Sharansky opens the meeting with a moment of silence in memory of the victims of the latest terror attack. The whole audience rises to its feet and in the background, the festive decorations from the New Year's celebration dangle. A common cliche defines the elections as a "celebration of democracy"; in the 2003 election, there is little democracy and even less celebration. A strange race, in which the politicians are navigating acrobatically on a tightrope. It is difficult to make the transition between a moment of silence and the problems of public housing, which are a key issue in Sharansky's remarks.

The last two rows of seats at the back of the hall look as though they were taken from the old "Lul" sketch in which Arik Einstein and Uri Zohar depicted the attitude of each immigration to the one that followed it. In these rows sit the "very new" immigrants from Argentina who have joined Sharansky's party. They have only one problem: They cannot understand a word of what Sharansky is saying, as he is speaking Russian. Gideon Millstein stalks out of the hall in high dudgeon, and agrees to return only after an arrangement is found: A veteran immigrant from Russia translates Sharansky's remarks into Hebrew for the sake of the veteran immigrants from Argentina and then a veteran immigrant from Argentina translates them into Spanish for the newer immigrants.

Millstein, a butcher by trade, arrived in Israel eight months ago. He lives in Upper Nazareth and for the nonce is making hotdogs and chorizos in his home and selling them. After eight months in Israel, he is already "fed up with the old things," and after he heard that there is a new party that "takes care of immigrants," he decided to come.

Problems of housing and employment are not reserved exclusively for immigrants from Russia. Sharansky presents himself as a sectarian representative, but at the same time, as a national leader, to whose political philosophy even Condoleezza Rice listens.

Bedouin inroads

Sharansky came to the immigrants' meeting straight from an election visit to Taibeh. The minister travels from his office in Jerusalem to Kochav Yair in his official car and in Kochav Yair, he transfers to a vehicle that is protected against bullets and mines. In 2003, a government minister travels on an election visit in the middle of the country in an armored car. On the side of the car, it says "Dedicated by the Etz Haim Yeshiva, Boro Park, Brooklyn." The rest of the inscription is well-covered by thick masking tape.

Sharansky's visit in Taibeh does not look strange to the visitor and his hosts. This is already the second round of Knesset elections in which he has been active in the Arab sector, and he has supporters there from his days as interior minister and minister of industry and trade. The head of his "minorities headquarters" is Ata Farhat, a young Druze from Daliat al-Carmel. For three years now the police have been conducting an investigation of Farhat on suspicions of election fraud and bribery. The mill of justice grinds slowly, and meanwhile Farhat is in the 12th place on the Yisrael b'Aliyah list for the Knesset.

In the streets of Taibeh hang pictures of Ta'al MK Ahmed Tibi, a native son who was at first disqualified from running for the next Knesset by the Central Elections Committee, until that body's decision was overturned by the Supreme Court yesterday. Jaber Riad and Salim Mahmud, two residents of Taibeh who came to the meeting with Sharansky, say that not everyone in Taibeh was really angry about the CEC disqualification. "There are all kinds," they say. "Last time we voted for Tibi so he would help us, and he went to help Arafat. What did we get out of this?" Now they are with Sharansky.

In the home of Mabrouk Abed al-Khader, the chairman of the Yisrael b'Aliyah branch in Taibeh, the host declares that this is not a visit to get acquainted, but a practical visit. Everyone knows that politics in Israel is a matter of "I'll look out for you and you'll look out for me," and after the minister has done so much for Taibeh, the activists also have to benefit from their work.

Sharansky skirts this land mine cautiously. First he has everyone stand up for a moment of silence in memory of he victims of the terror attack at the Tel Aviv central bus station - Jews, Christians and Muslims. Then he sets forth his social philosophy. "Even if I don't get a single vote in Taibeh, I will continue to have the same attitude toward you," he says. "I have to be interested in the closing of gaps and in equality no less than you. I came from a country where we were a persecuted minority, and today even President Putin admits that the greatest mistake of the previous regime was that they tried to bend the minorities. If they have understood this in Russia, this certainly must be the case in a democratic country. To continue, I need strength."

But the inhabitants of Taibeh are no patsies. Sharansky says that he has not come to make promises because "one shouldn't believe the promises of politicians two weeks before elections," but his supporters in Taibeh know exactly what they want: Sharansky in the Interior Ministry. The Housing Ministry is also good, but the Interior Ministry is better.

"We are a miserable people," Abed Haj Yihyeh, the chairman of Hapoel Taibeh, will say later. "We are in the Middle Ages - not only in the physical conditions of the place, but also with respect to ourselves. Look, [Interior] Minister Eli Yishai wrote a letter to the head of our council, Salah Jabara, in which he postponed the local elections, which were supposed to be held in October, to an unknown date. What's going on? Aren't we intelligent? Don't we deserve democracy?" he says with deep insult in his voice.

He recalls how Sharansky dismantled appointed councils in minority locales and declared that elections would be held. Here, too, there is no mention of the security situation and ideological positions. Nothing. There are potholes in the road and sewage flows through the streets - and these are problems of the sort that can be solved.

From the visit to Taibeh, Sharansky hastens to a meeting with his Bedouin activists - who were relocated near Taibeh and discriminated against. In the election poster - aimed at the minority sector - Sharansky is shown next to Juma Azgaraba, the Bedouin coordinator who has been given the 13th spot on the Yisrael b'Aliyah list for the Knesset. In the picture, the two are enveloped in a romantic, light blue circle, with a vague Star of David in the background. Prisoner of Zion Anatoly Sharansky has come a long way to become "al-wazir Sharansky," as he is presented here.

"It is an honor to us that you have put a Bedouin on your list," say the few activists who have come to the meeting at the hospitality house of the head of the Azgaraba tribe, Apparently, moving the 1,500 members of the tribe from the south of Israel to quasi-urban life in the center of the country has not really improved their lot. Perhaps this is why they like to make comparisons between their situation and that of the Jewish minority that lived under Soviet rule.

"We are a minority and he represents a minority," says Azgaraba. "He also made joint industrial zones for Jews and the minorities, when the kibbutzim objected to this." To dispel all doubt, he also stresses that "this isn't the minister who supports transfer, like you asked me before. That's the other one."

On the way out of the Taibeh area in the direction of Upper Nazareth, they again change cars. Now it is possible to go back to the usual official car. At the same time, they also pull off the masking tape that had concealed part of the inscription on the side of the armored vehicle. "This car was purchased with the help of the Yesha Council," it says beneath the masking tape. Now this can be revealed.