Washington Post: Saleh Tarif Torn between two Cultures

Published April 2nd, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

Arab member of the Israeli cabinet, Saleh Tarif, is finding it difficult to reconcile his Arab identity and his position as a minister in Ariel Sharon’s government, said Washington Post on Sunday. 

A Druze and the first Arab to join the cabinet in the Jewish state's 53-year history, Tarif refuses to sing the Israeli national anthem, preferring to stand in silence, lips pursed, rather than to mouth lyrics describing the Jewish soul's yearning to return to Zion. He has met dozens of times with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. And he considers the notion that Jews are God's chosen people so nonsensical that when asked about it he lets out a long, hearty laugh 

“I don't take it so seriously," he tells the paper. 

“But Tarif is also, undeniably, an Israeli. He points out that he was moved to tears during a visit to the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau by the memory of Jewish suffering and mass extermination. And, having served as a paratroop commander in the Israeli army, he says he is proud of having fought for his country -- although he insists that Arab citizens of Israel are poorly treated by the state,” said the Post. 

But both the Arab citizens of Israel, including the Druze, and the Israeli rightists are not satisfied with Tarif, said the report. 

To some of the hard-liners and right-wing ideologues in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition government, Tarif's ambiguous allegiances make him little better than a traitor. 

But to Israel's one million Arab citizens -- Palestinians who remained in what is now Israel, including Tarif's 100,000-member Druze community -- he is not universally regarded as a hero. While some view him as a skilled politician and a conduit to power, others believe his decision to join Sharon's cabinet makes him a token and a sellout, window dressing for a government whose attitude toward Arabs is suspect, at best. 

"He's walking a tightrope," said Hannah Siniora, an Israeli Arab journalist and publisher. "He served in the army and was a commissioned officer. . . . yet at same time he understands that he has to have a following, and that following is in the Arab-Israeli sector.” 

"I feel I have a mission to bridge the gaps between Arabs and Jews inside Israel," Tarif was quoted as saying. "People have a hurt now, and the hurt is bleeding.” 

Unlike Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their towns and villages in Israel's 1948 war of independence, Israeli Arabs stayed put and became citizens. They vote and are represented in parliament, but are exempt from military service. The Druze sect to which Tarif belongs -- an 11th-century spinoff from Islam whose adherents live chiefly in Syria, Lebanon and Israel -- has from the beginning been the most loyal among those Arabs who remained. Druze agreed after the 1948 war to be subject to the draft, and they are known as tough and dedicated soldiers, said the Post. 

But the Druze in Syria’s occupied Golan Heights have resolutely rejected the Israeli passports and insisted on their identity as Syrian Arabs.  

After an eight-year army career, Tarif left active duty as a captain. He joined the Labor Party and was elected mayor of his hometown of Junis. He entered the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in 1991. 

As a lawmaker, he has concerned himself with what he calls "making Israel a country of all its citizens" by improving the lot of Arabs -- not only his fellow Druze but also other Arabs who live as citizens in Israel. Barred from many public-sector jobs and discriminated against in housing and other fields, Israeli Arabs make up a vast and angry underclass, posing what some analysts say is a significant threat to the country's long-term social coherence. According to the report, of the 26 Israeli towns with the highest rates of unemployment, 21 are predominantly Arab. 

“It is Tarif's burden to wrestle with the Arabs' anger toward the Israeli government and to try to address its causes from within the system. He is pressing for a four-year, $1 billion program to lift Israeli Arabs from poverty, despair and hopelessness. On occasion, though, he sounds unmistakably like an outsider -- one who shares the anger of his community.” 

He has, for instance, urged Israeli Arabs and Druze not to serve in the military "until you get your rights." He has slammed the army for its "violence" in defending Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and wished good health to Sheik Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, whom Israeli Jews regard as a terrorist. 

He also denounced Sharon for having visited, and thereby "defiled," Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. And while Tarif opposes terror attacks, he has embraced the Palestinian uprising that erupted after Sharon's visit in September, in which more than 400 Palestinians have died in an attempt to end Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. 

"I am certain that this great sacrifice, with the help of Allah, will lead to the establishment of the state of Palestine, to [a Palestinian capital in] Jerusalem and to al-Aqsa," the mosque in the Noble Sanctuary over which Palestinians insist on sovereignty, he was quoted as telling Palestinian television in January. 

Given his past statements, it was surprising to some that he accepted a Labor Party nomination into the coalition government led by the Likud Party's Sharon. For many Arabs, Sharon represents Israel's most brutal, militaristic streak. Tarif has warned publicly for years that Israel's expanding Jewish settlements and its control over Palestinian lives would lead to an explosion. Now that his predictions seem to have proved justified, some Arabs do not understand why Tarif would join a government that embraces the very policies he warned against. 

"Any non-Jew who accepts a [cabinet] position is a fig leaf to cover the nakedness of Sharon's government," said Hashem Mahamid, a fellow Arab member of the Knesset.  

"What [Tarif] is doing is unacceptable to the great majority of the Arab population. . . . It looks like he's crossed over to the other side.” Uncomfortable with such suggestions, Tarif insists on his dual identity as an Arab and an Israeli citizen. Still, he acknowledges that an intensification of the Israeli army's crackdown on the Palestinian insurrection could put him in "an awkward position.” 

"I have hopes, I have also fears," he said. "I have some fears of what will happen in case we have escalation. . . . I'm not sure what that will mean for me, if I can stay and be part of this government.” 

The Washington Post, however, did not say whether Tarif is playing the expected role as a middleman between Sharon on the one hand, and Arafat on the other. There have been reports of backdoor contacts between the Israeli and the Palestinian leaderships. 

A Palestinian lawmaker, Hatem Abdul Qader, has told Albawaba.com of peace proposals offered by Sharon, that have been rejected by the PNA – Albawaba.com 

© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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