Arab bids to be next Israeli premier

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IN JAFFA, the shabby Arab town on a rocky promontory overlooking Tel Aviv, Sami Abu Shahabeh is campaigning on behalf of the first Israeli- Arab to try to become Prime Minister of Israel. He says: "It is time for the Arabs to show that they are not in anybody's pocket."

The walls of his campaign headquarters are plastered with pictures of Azmi Bishara, the Israeli-Arab academic who is becoming a central figure in Israel's election on 17 May. His aim is not to win, but to take enough votes to ensure that the needs of the one million Arabs who are Israeli citizens cannot be ignored.

Mr Abu Shahabeh, 23, a political science student at Tel Aviv University, says that already the campaign has succeeded "in reminding the world that Israeli-Arabs exist and do not have equal rights with Jews".

He does not rule out a deal with Ehud Barak, the leader of the Labour party, but says he must make an agreement to end discrimination in housing, education and employment.

The Israeli-Arabs, descended from the 150,000 Palestinians who were not forced to leave when Israel was founded in 1948, are concentrated mainly in western Galilee, where three-quarters live, with a remnant in cities such as Jaffa and Haifa. In Jaffa, once the second biggest city in Palestine, some 20,000 Arabs live today in crumbling buildings within sight of the tower blocks of Tel Aviv.

It is a politically schizophrenic community, speaking both Hebrew and Arabic, unable to identify either with Israel or the 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

"This sense of being doubly marginalised has haunted us throughout the 1990s," says Dr Asa'ad Ghanem of Haifa University. "We are neither Israelis nor Palestinians, but a small part of this and a small part of that."

Politically, however, the Israeli-Arabs play an important role because they are 10 per cent of the electorate. The last Labour government depended on their votes in the Knesset. If he is to win the election, Mr Barak needs them to turn out massively for him on 17 May, and again - if no candidate gets half the vote - on 1 June.

This may not happen. The first round of the election for the prime minister is also the Knesset elections, when Israeli-Arabs have an incentive to go to the polls to vote for their own parties. Dr Ghanem, citing the results of a survey of Arab-Israeli voting intentions he conducted, says: "It is quite clear the turn-out will be very high, 85 to 87 per cent, in the first round, but a quarter will stay at home in the run-off.

"Arabs have a difficulty in voting for a Zionist military officer like Barak."

Amir Zabadad, 28, a computer programmer who is also campaigning for Mr Bishara in Jaffa, says he does not think he could bring himself to vote for Mr Barak once his own candidate is eliminated. He says: "I will probably cast a blank ballot paper unless he signs an agreement with us."

He points out that Mr Barak is heavily publicising a commando raid he led in 1973 to eliminate three Palestinian leaders in Beirut.

At the same time Israeli-Arab voters are eager to get rid of Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister. Mr Bishara has been criticised by the two other main Arab parties, Hadash (Communists) and the Islamic party, for standing at all. Abed Malek Dahamshe, an Islamic leader, says: "Bishara's candidacy will siphon off votes from Barak, whose position is closest to our own, namely that of the peace camp."

The dilemma for the Israeli-Arabs is that if they run their own candidate they may rob Mr Barak of vital votes and open the door to Mr Netanyahu, whom they detest. But if they vote for Mr Barak they are in danger of having their support taken for granted.

Mr Netanyahu's strategy is based on forcing the election into a second round, when he believes the Israeli-Arab vote will be down. Mr Ghanem says the Israeli-Arabs will only turn out en masse for Mr Barak if he reaches an agreement with them. He adds: "It is not enough to hate Netanyahu. We need somebody to love."