Barak appointment of Arab as deputy minister not enough to quell criticisms

 

The Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Ehud Barak, yesterday made an Arab deputy in the Knesset Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs - the most significant political post held by an Israeli Arab since the creation of the state 51 years ago.

While the appointment of Mr Nawaf Massalha, which was part of a government decision to expand the cabinet, was a definite step up for the 55-year-old member of Mr Barak's ruling Labour Party - he once served as deputy health minister - Arab politicians insisted that the prime minister should have gone further and appointed the first-ever Arab minister in an Israeli government.

Mr Massalha said his new post was "another step forward" for the country's one million Arab citizens, but he admitted to being "disappointed". He said: "I told Ehud Barak that I should be a minister," he said yesterday, shortly after his appointment was announced. "I told him that the time had come to break the psychological barrier," he said. "But he didn't dare."

Israel's Arabs, who have full citizenship but don't do military service, voted overwhelmingly for Mr Barak in the election on May 17th, but quickly became disenchanted with the new prime minister after he ignored the Arab parties during coalition negotiations and after it became clear there would not be an Arab minister in his cabinet.

Yesterday's appointment was seen by some as an attempt by Mr Barak to mollify criticism in the Arab sector. But Dr Abraham Diskin, a political science professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said that the decision had only symbolic significance. "It's not a real promotion," he said, "and I don't believe it will do much to satisfy the Arab parties."

Mr Massalha will be deputy to the Foreign Minister, Mr David Levy, but Mr Barak and Mr Levy are expected to maintain a firm grip on Israeli foreign policy.

Mr Massalha's appointment follows the landmark acceptance last month of the first-ever Arab as a member of the prestigious Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, whose membership until then had been confined to Jews.

The appointment of an Arab to the post of deputy foreign minister may also be an attempt by Mr Barak to signal to the Arab world that Israel is serious about peace. "I see it as a step for peace," Mr Massalha said. "Negotiations will be very tough. But I believe that we will achieve peace with the Syrians, the Lebanese and the Palestinians in the next four years. I'm cautiously optimistic."

Among the five new ministers appointed yesterday was Dr Yuli Tamir, an education and philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University and only the second woman in Mr Barak's cabinet - the most in any Israeli government so far. The cabinet now numbers 23.

Ms Tamir's appointment, to the post of Absorption Minister, follows incessant criticism from women parliamentarians and women's groups over the almost total absence of women in the cabinet. During his election campaign, Mr Barak promised there would be three women in his government.

The choice of Ms Tamir, however, sparked criticism in the Labour party over the fact that Mr Barak had overlooked the Labour stalwart Ms Yael Dayan, who was placed ahead of Ms Tamir in the party primaries earlier this year.

Ms Dayan, the daughter of the late legendary general, Moshe Dayan, is known for her outspoken views. She said she was "happy another woman has been appointed" to the cabinet, but that "Ehud Barak has harmed me personally and he has harmed the party". She also dismissed as a "lie" Mr Barak's excuse for passing her over - that certain elements of his ruling coalition objected to her being appointed to a ministerial post.