Ghaleb Majadleh, 53, a veteran Labour Party figure was sworn in by Parliament on January 29 as the first Muslim cabinet minister in Israel’s 58-year history after a weeks-long battle over his nomination that drew fire from far-right parties as well as Arab lawmakers. The Parliamentary confirmation was expected after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's cabinet voted on January 28 to make Ghaleb Majadleh a minister without portfolio. After the establishment of a Muslim prayer room at Ben-Gurion International Airport in December 2006 to serve the port's Muslim passengers by the Israel Airports Authority (IAA), an Arab Muslim’s inclusion in the Israeli Cabinet is considered to be major shift in the country’s policy visavis the largest minority community.
Miri Eisin, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said: “The present government is proud to be the first government to give executive representation to the Arab Muslim minority”.
"I am certain that Minister Galeb Majadleh will be a place to turn to help deal with the gaps between the Arab and Jewish sectors," said Defence Minister and Labour party leader Amir Peretz.
Israel’s Parliament has always had Arab legislators. Today they number 13 members (11 %) out of 120. But the country has had only one Arab Cabinet minister before, Salah Tarif, a Druze, who was appointed in 2001 and forced to quit nine months later under a cloud of corruption allegations. This appointment was more contentious because Muslim and Christian Arabs, unlike the Druze, don’t 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 media persons and actors. 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.
Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel's 7 million population and have long complained of being treated like second-class citizens and about a paucity of government funds for their towns and villages.
Majadleh hailed his own appointment as an historic step forward for relations between Jews and the Arab community in Israel. "The first step has been taken and this has given Israeli Arabs a feeling of belonging," Majadleh told Army Radio. He predicted that in the future, every Israeli government would be obliged to include an Arab minister.
But several Muslim lawmakers spoke out against his nomination, saying Majadleh would only represent his party's ideology and not the entire Arab population. Others said he was joining a government that was not interested in making peace with its Arab neighbors.
Wasil Taha, a legislator from Arab Balad Party, said there was little chance Majadleh would be able to have a positive effect by working inside the government.
Israeli officials have denied any policy of discrimination against the country's Arab citizens, saying they enjoyed more political freedom in Israel than in anywhere in the Muslim world and had a strong representation in Parliament.
Majadleh was nominated by the Labour Party for a ministerial post after one of its members quit the cabinet in protest at the addition of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu faction to Olmert's coalition government in October. Israeli media said Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beitenu was the only cabinet member to vote against the appointment.
His appointment was first put forward a fortnight ago by Amir Peretz, the embattled Labour leader and Defence Minister, drawing criticism from his own party, the hard Right and even some Israeli-Arab members of the Knesset. Peretz, who may lose the defence post this week in a Cabinet reshuffle, was accused of using Majadleh to bolster his own position before a leadership contest in which the votes of Israeli-Arab party members will be vital. (Courtesy: Yahoo News, Reuter and AP)