Israel Pulse

Arab Knesset member ready for challenges of defense committee appointment

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Article Summary
Arab Knesset member Issawi Frej is preparing for his appointment to the Israeli Knesset's prestigious Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, expecting criticism and skepticism from both Jews and Arabs alike.

Meretz member Issawi Frej is expected to be appointed to the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the next few days. He will replace Meretz Chair Zehava Gal-On, who resigned from the Knesset Oct. 22. Frej will be the third Arab Knesset member to serve on the prestigious committee. He is preceded by Taleb al-Sana of the Arab Democratic Party (Taal), who served in 2006, and Hashem Mahameed of the United Arab List (Ra'am), who served during the 15th Knesset, 1999-2003.

When Sana's appointment was approved in April 2006, he said, "Until now, we've been disqualified for racist reasons. This time, they ran out of excuses. It's important for them to hear other opinions, and we have [something] to say on this important committee." Sana lasted only a few weeks on the committee, resigning after the committee's chairman, Minister Yuval Steinitz, arranged to exclude him from discussions on sensitive topics.

"They turned the committee's discussions around so that they focused on procedural issues, while the main discussions were moved to subcommittees, where I was not a member," Sana told Al-Monitor. "There was no content involved with my membership, and I realized that it was ineffective."

Sana said that the committee cast aspersions on his loyalty to Israel, and he felt like a pariah, until he decided to resign. Perhaps it was because of this that after the 2015 elections, Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh requested positions for his party on other committees instead, even though his party was the third largest in the Knesset.

"We want to be part of every committee and all the official institutions of the state, except for three ministries: defense, foreign affairs, and immigration and absorption," Odeh said at the time. "We want the occupation to end, and we want to see a Palestinian state established alongside the State of Israel. We cannot be part of the Ministry of Defense as long as the occupation continues." 

Frej is taking a different position. "I really feel like I am part of Israeli society," he told Al-Monitor. "I want a proper society and state in which I have a place, so it is important to me to be a member of this committee. Not because I want to be defiant, but because I want to have an impact."

He said that because of his attitude, a short membership like Sana's will not be repeated in his case. He explained, "If they move some of the sensitive discussions to the subcommittees, I'll just smile and carry on."

Nevertheless, Frej is not taking the situation lightly, caught as he is between a rock and a hard place — between an Arab society that potentially sees him as collaborating with the Israeli security establishment sustaining the occupation and a Jewish society that might consider him a fifth columnist.

"I come from the heart of Arab society," Frej said. "I'm a resident of Kafr Qasim, a Muslim and an Arab. It's not easy to have them saying about me, 'Look at him! A member of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee! How dare he? How can he take part in their discussions?' But given that I was elected to the Knesset, I look at it differently, from the perspective of a desire to bring about change and contribute to the State of Israel, which I consider to be my country. When I participate on panels, Arabs ask me how I can partner with a Zionist party [Meretz], and when I go to the Jewish side, they ask me about how Zionist I am. You have to walk a tightrope, like an aerial artist, so as not to anger your own people and not to anger your partners."

Frej is upset about the criticism surrounding his appointment simply because he is an Arab. "The loyalty of every [Israeli] Arab citizen is tested from the day he is born, and that infuriates me," he said. "Those people who are surprised whenever an Arab is appointed ambassador or consul or minister are the same people who want to separate Arabs and Jews and prevent the Arabs from having any influence. I'm allowed to support the left, even if I am an Arab. I believe that the fact that I am different or that I support the left does not signify hostility. Not every leftist is hostile, and of course, not every Arab is hostile, just like all of Israel is not [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu."

On the day Frej spoke with Al-Monitor, Yisrael Hayom ran a feature headline criticizing the appointment of Malakuba Nassar as the head of information in the Arab sector for the National Road Safety Authority, which is under the Transportation Ministry. "Senior government official Is an anti-Israel activist," blared the headline. The paper had concluded that Nassar was an anti-Israel activist based on a Facebook post she wrote about the Nakba and her participation in a march to commemorate it.

"Arab loyalty to Israel should not be doubted simply because they think differently from the Israeli right and do not want to forget their past," said Frej. "Israeli society must absorb and integrate the Arabs instead of pushing them out."

As a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Frej plans to concentrate on issues that are not necessarily the major focus of the other members. "It is important for me that the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] maintain the highest level of ethical behavior and civil rights in the West Bank and everywhere else," he explained.

There is still one obstacle standing in the way of Frej's appointment. The Zionist Camp claims that the committee seat belongs to them. Frej does not believe that this will prove to be a problem, because the center-left Zionist Camp would not block the appointment of an Arab member of the Knesset to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. On the other hand, Frej could be wrong given recent statements against a coalition with the Joint List by Zionist Camp leader Avi Gabbay and his attempts to appeal to the right.

Found in: Governance

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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