(SEBASTIAN SCHEINER ~ Associated Press)
JERUSALEM -- The Israeli government overwhelmingly approved the appointment of the country's first Muslim Cabinet minister Sunday, billing it as an important step for a long-suffering minority.
But the appointment of Raleb Majadele, mired for weeks in political infighting and charges of racism, drew renewed criticism from hard-liners who said the move was little more than political expediency. Even Arab lawmakers dismissed the development, saying the government has little real interest in improving the lot of Israel's Arabs.
Majadele said 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 Labor party, says 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.
From the moment Defense Minister Amir Peretz, the Labor Party leader, plucked Majadele from political obscurity to fill a vacant Cabinet post designated for the centrist party, the move was dogged by political squabbling in Olmert's fractious coalition government.
Olmert dragged his feet on approving the appointment pending an upcoming Cabinet shuffle, and some members of the Yisrael Beiteinu party opposed the appointment on ideological grounds, with one member decrying it as "a fatal blow to Zionism."
The nomination even drew fire from inside Labor, with Druse members protesting that they were passed over for the ministerial post. Peretz, who has been unpopular since last summer's inconclusive war in Lebanon, was also criticized for using the nomination to try to shore up his political support ahead of Labor's party primary election in May.
In the end, hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman was the only Cabinet member to vote against the appointment. Lieberman accused Peretz of exploiting the nomination to seek Arab backing in the primary voting. But he rejected allegations of racism.
"I have no problem with an Arab minister," Lieberman told Israeli Army Radio. "I have no problem with a Muslim, Christian or Druse minister."
Lieberman favors redrawing Israel's border to exclude most of the country's Arab population.
Arab lawmakers slammed Majadele for joining the government alongside Yisrael Beiteinu. "It's not moral for an Arab lawmaker to join a government alongside Lieberman, the racist," the Balad party's Taha said.