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Israeli Cabinet Approves Muslim Minister

By MATTI FRIEDMAN
The Associated Press
Monday, January 29, 2007; 3:01 PM

JERUSALEM -- Israel on Monday installed the first Muslim Cabinet minister in its 58-year history, with parliament approving his appointment by a wide margin.

Raleb Majadele's appointment to the Cabinet, which the government billed as a step toward equality for Muslim Arabs, Israel's largest minority, passed by a vote of 59 to 23. Then Majadele was sworn in.

The appointment was mired for weeks in political infighting and charges of racism. It drew criticism from hard-liners who said the move was little more than political expediency. Arab lawmakers dismissed the development, saying the government has little real interest in improving the lot of Israel's Arabs.

Majadele told AP Television News that his goals as a Cabinet minister would be "promoting coexistence between the two peoples inside the state, and promoting dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israelis toward negotiations and political agreement."

Majadele, a parliamentary backbencher from the centrist Labor Party, said his appointment is meant to give representation to Israel's Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of the country's 7 million citizens. He has predicted that in the future, every Israeli government will be obliged to include an Arab minister.

"The present government is proud to be the first government to give executive representation to the Arab Muslim minority," said Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Israel's parliament has always had Arab lawmakers _ today, they number 13 members out of 120. But the country has had only one Arab Cabinet minister before: Salah Tarif, a Druse, who was appointed in 2001 and forced to resign nine months later under a cloud of corruption allegations.

This appointment was more contentious because Muslim and Christian Arabs, unlike the Druse, do not serve in the army and have a far weaker identification with Israel.

Arabs have been slowly taking on a more visible role in Israeli society in recent years. There is an Arab Supreme Court justice, as well as several diplomats and senior civil servants. There is also a smattering of Arab TV journalists and actors, along with a former national beauty queen and the winner of the Israeli version of "America's Next Top Model."

But Arabs lag behind Israel's Jewish population in income, education and standard of living, and have long lacked representation in government commensurate with their numbers.

Wasil Taha, a lawmaker from the Arab Balad party, said there was little chance Majadele would be able to have a positive effect by working inside the government.

"Progress for Israel's Arabs depends on changing the entire discriminatory approach of the government over the past 58 years, and not on the appointment of a minister or deputy minister," Taha said. Israel was founded in 1948.

© 2007 The Associated Press