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Jewish Groups Join in Bid To Aid Arabs, But Spar Over Olmert Tie to Rightist

A coalition of American Jewish organizations launched a groundbreaking initiative this week to improve the socio-economic standing of Israeli Arabs, but participating groups were split on whether to speak out against the inclusion of an ultra-nationalist, reputedly anti-Arab party in Israel’s new government.

Last Wednesday, a new task force made up of Israeli experts and leaders of American Jewish organizations and charities held a press conference in New York to unveil a new campaign to help Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up 20% of the population. The task force hopes to raise awareness about the gaps between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews in standard of living, health care, education and employment.

The effort to address inequality in Israel comes as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert continued to discuss the possibility of creating a cabinet that would include Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home). The party, which won most of the Russian vote and 12 seats in the recent elections, advocates policies that critics say would lead to many Israeli Arabs being stripped of their citizenship unfairly.

Despite such positions, the party does not in principle oppose territorial concessions. So while its policies strike some as being anti-Arab, Lieberman’s party could provide Olmert with a pillar of right-wing support for his proposed West Bank pullout.

Leaders of several of the most influential organizations involved in the new campaign, including Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that they were not opposed to the inclusion of Lieberman in the Cabinet, because his controversial proposals regarding Israeli Arabs would not become government policy. Furthermore, most observers insist, the Israeli Supreme Court would not allow Arabs to be stripped of their citizenship against their will.

Several members of the new task force countered that even if it flatly rejects Lieberman’s proposals, the new task force should oppose his inclusion in the government.

“This task force is clearly a positive development, but Lieberman will be the ticking bomb in the room. We will need to address the issue because Lieberman has a strong following,” said Larry Garber, executive director of the liberal New Israel Fund, a Washington-based charity that helps fund programs in Israel promoting Jewish-Arab co-existence and other causes. “Even though his platform won’t be implemented, it raises serious concerns because of the message it sends to an already alienated Israeli-Arab community.”

Lieberman, born in Moldova, is a former Likud leader who served as chief of staff to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He launched his own immigrant-based party after a falling out with Netanyahu in 2000.

His party garnered most of the Russian immigrant vote this year, running on a platform that called for some Israeli-Arab towns to be turned over to an eventual Palestinian state in exchange for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. “Israel is our home, Palestine is their home,” the party platform states.

Lieberman’s party also advocates a law “obligating every citizen to declare loyalty to the State of Israel,” which critics say could lead to many Israeli Arabs being stripped of their citizenship. In an interview with the Forward, the director general of the party, Faina Kirshenbaum, said that “a person who isn’t loyal to the flag, the national anthem” should not enjoy citizenship. As it stands, many Arab citizens commonly object to Israel’s Jewish-themed national anthem, “Hatikvah,” claiming that it excludes them. She said the party intended to press the citizenship issue in the next Knesset.

The issue of Arab alienation and poverty in Israel has become even more salient since police killed a dozen Arab Israeli citizens during riots in late 2000. Raising tensions further were the arrests of several Israeli Arabs for allegedly plotting terrorist schemes against Israeli targets since the beginning of the second intifada that same year.

An Israeli participant in the task force’s Wednesday meeting, Shuli Dichter, praised American Jewish groups for addressing the issue of Arab inequality, but he said that the issue of Lieberman’s inclusion in the Cabinet could not be ignored.

“We are happy to see that Diaspora Jews finally understand the importance of equality in Israel and are starting to think of Israel in realistic rather than idealistic terms,” said Dichter, director of Israel’s Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality. “But it is clear that having Yisrael Beiteinu in the coalition will be a setback for the fight for equality in Israel.”

Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz informed Olmert on Sunday that Lieberman could not serve in the public security post because he is under police investigation on suspicion of involvement in illicit business dealings in Russia, and corruption offenses related to election campaign funding in 1998 and ‘99. Still, members of multiple parties reportedly said that Lieberman and his party eventually would be brought into the government.

Foxman said he was unconcerned about the possibility of a Cabinet post for Lieberman: “If they make the deal, we wouldn’t have a problem with it. I find [Lieberman] to be a person one can discuss and debate and argue and disagree [with] and I don’t think we have a problem and I don’t think the American Jewish community will.”

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