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Israel elections Thursday, 20 May, 1999, 21:01 GMT 22:01 UK
Putting Arabs on the map
Azmi Bishara's community knows power lies with the Jewish politicans and parties
By Middle East Correspondent Paul Adams

Azmi Bishara's candidacy in the Israeli prime ministerial election succeeded in focusing attention on the country's half a million Arab voters.

An Arab saying he wanted to lead the Jewish state - it sounds almost absurd, and it has never happened before.

Israel Elections Special Report
Campaign commercials for Mr Bishara's party talk of equality. Fifty years after Israeli citizenship was thrust upon them, Arabs still feel like second class citizens.

But winning was the last thing on Azmi Bishara's mind, and it came as no great surprise when he withdrew his candidacy on Saturday.

Although Israeli Arabs make up 20% of the populations, his campaign was all about Arab pride, about making Israel's leaders sit up and take notice.

"We are denied many many rights," says the Knesset member, "and this is one of the ideas that made our presence felt very much, and made the Israelis take us seriously. And they are taking us seriously as never before."

Arabs make their mark

Israeli Arabs are making their presence felt, in more ways than one. Earlier this year, Rana Raslan, an Arab from Haifa, was crowned the winner of the Miss Israel contest. When Israelis go the polls on 17 May, Ms Raslan will be in Trinidad, preparing to represent her country at Miss Universe.

Rana Raslan is the first Arab to be crowned Miss Israel
"They chose me because I'm beautiful," Ms Raslan says. "But it's something more special, so special, that I'm Arab and the Jews chose me. It's very nice."

Slowly integration is beginning to happen in Israel. Haifa is as close as Israel gets to an integrated city. It is a place where Jews and Arabs rub shoulders. Sometimes it is hard to tell the two communities apart.

Arab businessman Andre Suedan runs one of the most successful wine shops in the country. Most of his customers are Jews. Would he vote for an Arab prime minister?

"I do not regard the nationality as a necessity to be prime minister. If the prime minister knows my needs, this should be the best man. Not necessarily an Arab," he said.

Mr Suedan will vote for Ehud Barak when it comes to the election. He's proud of his Arab identity but knows that Jewish parties - and Jewish leaders - are the ones that wield power in Israel.

Long road ahead

A few miles south, and it is another world. The road to the tiny hamlet of Ein Hod, in the Carmel forest, is almost impassable.

Until 1992, Ein Hod was one of scores of "unrecognised villages," where tens of thousands of Israeli Arabs live in varying degrees of poverty. Without even basic services, some villages do not even appear on the map. That includes communities that have existed longer than the state of Israel.

Ein Hod, home to 200 Israeli Arabs, has to generate its own electricity. There are no phone lines. Water comes, not from the state, but thanks to an arrangement with a nearby kibbutz.

Mohammed Abu al-Hija says Israeli Arabs are still second class citizens
Although the previous Labour-led government recognised the village in 1992, the status was frozen after Binyamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister. Mohammed Abu al-Hija, a local activist, says the effect is nothing has changed: "We are struggling to be equal citizens, but they don't want us."

For the villagers, politics is all about survival. In past elections, some have voted for the National Religious Party, whose right-wing, religious Jewish agenda hardly suits the interests of Israeli Arabs. But the NRP controls the nearby kibbutz, and the water pipe is a vital lifeline.

"We fight to drink the water as a right, not as a favour from anybody," says Mr Al-Hija. "So people vote for daily things. We should vote for the man who can change things in Israel. Not for Azmi Bishara."

Polls predict a large Arab turnout. Israel's first Arab prime ministerial candidate has few illusions about what he is doing. He fully expects to drop out before the end of the week, in return for campaign pledges from Mr Barak, who stands to lose most from Mr Bishara's candidacy.

In campaign speeches up and down the country, Mr Bishara tells Israeli Arabs to be proud of their identity.

"We wanted to challenge the Jewish character of the state, not to hide our national identity," he says. "We are Arabs. We belong to the Arab nation. For a long time to come, I think it will be hard for an Arab to become prime minister of Israel. But still, you can yearn for equality."

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BBC Correspondent Paul Adams reports from Jerusalem
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