Can Hashem Mahameed be trusted?
That is the question politicians here have been debating since Mahameed was named the first Arab lawmaker to sit on the foreign affairs and defense committee of Israel's parliament, the Knesset.
But to some Israelis, Jews as well as Arabs, the subtext of the debats is a broader question: Can any of Israel's Arab citizens be trusted?
This week's appointment of Mahameed, one of 10 Arabs in the 120-seat Knesset, was pushed by allies of newly installed Prime Minister Ehud Barak. They wanted to throw a bone to Israeli Arabs, none of whom was given a post in the new government even though they constitute more than 15 percent of the population and voted heavily for Barak in the May elections. The consolation prize was to name the 54-year-old Mahameed to the defense committee, a panel whose workings --until now--were seen as far too sensitive to share with Arab lawmakers.
The Israeli right wing hit the ceiling. Members of Likud, the main opposition party, wasted no time in branding Mahameed as unreliable and plumbing his record for evidence to prove it.
Predictably, they found statements of support for the intifada, Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule in the late 1980s and early '90s, and for Hezbollah, the Lebanese party whose militia is fighting Israeli troops in southern Lebanon. They also found that he paid a condolence call last year on the family of a pair of Palestinian brothers, top activists in the militant Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, who were assassinated by Israeli commandos.
Hard-liners suggested that Mahameed would transmit committee secrets to Israel's Arab enemies. Charging that with Mahameed present the committee's work would be valueless because the government would refuse to share sensitive information, Likud lawmakers threatened to boycott meetings starting next week.
"It would spell the end of any reporting by the defense establishment to the committee," said Moshe Arens, who was defense minister in the recently departed right-wing government under prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Nonsense, said the Israeli left. Liberal lawmakers noted that real secrets are discussed in subcommittee, and Mahameed will not get a subcommittee assignment. The attacks on Mahameed are really directed at all Arabs, they said.
"It's a racist sentence, a racist claim," said Haim Ramon, a minister in Barak's new cabinet. "They would like that we would [exclude Arabs] only because they are Arabs."
Mahameed, an educator who has served in the Knesset since 1980, was not so thrilled about the idea of sitting on the defense committee--at first. But after the outburst of opposition, he said, he became more interested. "When the right wing attacks me so strongly, I think maybe I'm doing the right thing," he said.
The son of illiterate farmers, Mahameed has a master's degree from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and English and spent six years before he was elected to the Knesset as mayor of the Israeli Arab town of Umm el-Fahm.
He acknowledges a close relationship with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and other top Palestinians and sympathy for their cause. But he resents the suggestion that he is disloyal to Israel and says he has never questioned Israel's right to exist. Satisfying the Palestinians' political demands can only defuse a tense situation and therefore help Israel, he says.
"I'm 100 percent a member of the Knesset and 100 percent a member of the committee," Mahameed said. "But I want to be recognized as an equal citizen in Israel. It's the state that does not recognize me as its legal son."
CAPTION: Israeli Knesset member Hashem Mahameed, left, with Yasser Arafat in 1997.