If Israel's friends and diplomats have a harder time this week convincing the world that Israel is not a racist state, they have only their own government to blame. Seventeen rightist and religious party ministers voted last Sunday to endorse a privately sponsored bill to build public-sector housing within Israel exclusively for Jews.
This despite the fact that Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein publicly urged ministers to think again about barring Israeli Arabs from buying homes in new "Jewish" towns, built on state-owned land. Israel has about 1 million Arab citizens, nearly 20 percent of the population.
Rubinstein, a civil servant whose job is to advise the government on legal matters, is no knee-jerk liberal lawyer, but a chronically cautious, kippah-wearing son of the National Religious camp. He not only warned ministers that the legislation was likely to deepen the rift between Jewish and Arab citizens, but added: "There is no contradiction between striving to grant the Arabs equality, as required by law and decency, and the fulfillment of Zionism."
More predictably, Shulamit Aloni, a veteran civil rights campaigner and former minister, said: "If we are not an apartheid state, we are getting much, much closer to it." Yossi Sarid, who succeeded her as leader of the Meretz Party, added: "The Israeli Arabs are not guests here. They are citizens with equal rights." Azmi Bishara, of the Arab Balad Party, said: "Racism has become an official ideology of the state of Israel."
Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer announced on Monday that Labor ministers and legislators would oppose the bill when it is debated. Ben-Eliezer, the party leader, did not explain why his ministers refrained from fighting the measure at Sunday's cabinet meeting. Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh was the only Labor representative who openly opposed it. Other ministers either left the chamber or muttered reservations.
These passive dissenters included at least two from the right of the spectrum -- Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit of the Likud and one of his predecessors, Dan Meridor, who condemned the proposal as "a grave error."
The bill, promoted by Rabbi Haim Druckman of the National Religious Party, is designed to reverse a landmark Supreme Court ruling of March 2000 that it was unconstitutional to prevent an Israeli Arab, Adel Ka'adan, from moving his family into the new community of Katzir in the predominantly Arab Wadi Ara valley in Western Galilee. Katzir was itself an act of demographic engineering, an attempt to change the Arab-Jewish balance in the area.
Ka'adan is a nurse in the emergency ward of Hillel Yaffeh Hospital in Hadera, where he has often treated Jewish victims of Palestinian suicide bombings. "Peace-loving people," he protested this week, "both Arabs and Jews, are struggling to bring people closer together. In one moment, the government has taken a decision that kills these budding flowers of peace. At the hospital we work together, and the government tries to cut off all this." Ka'adan, who says he merely wants to have a nice house in a nice setting, has still not overcome local obstruction to building in Katzir.
Druckman, a veteran ideologue of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is unrepentant. He hailed Sunday's vote as "one of the government's finest hours under Sharon's leadership," an act that "brought back the color to the cheeks of Zionism."
Critics say that is precisely the kind of tunnel vision that has landed Israel in its current mess. For the most part, Jews and Arabs choose to live within their own communities. It becomes discrimination, they -- and the Supreme Court -- said, when mixed neighborhoods are barred by law.
As Meridor, who was raised in the Likud and might be on his way back after four years in the Center Party, said: "It is not permissible to allow an Israeli law to state that a non-Jew may be prevented from living in a particular place for security reasons. This is not a security matter. There is no need for flagrant discrimination. As to the charge that Zionism is racism, what are we ourselves saying here?"