Israeli-Arab leaders under fire for Libya visit

AP News
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Posted: Mar 04, 2011 3:46 AM
Israeli-Arab leaders under fire for Libya visit

Israeli-Arab leaders are on the defensive over a much-publicized visit to Libya last year, where they fawned over Moammar Gadhafi and posed for a series of photographs beaming alongside the longtime ruler.

Known as loud critics of Israel's treatment of its Arab minority, they are now facing uncomfortable questions about their long history of cozying up to some of the Middle East's most authoritarian leaders.

"I cannot stop myself from feeling shame that assaults me every time I see my photographs with him," Hanin Zoabi, an Arab Israeli lawmaker who met Gadhafi, wrote in a local website.

Zoabi, like other members of the delegation, refused to apologize for last April's visit, saying it was necessary for Israeli Arabs to reach out to Mideast leaders and naive and impossible to ignore them.

The uproar has drawn attention to the state of Israel's Arabs, who account for about a fifth of the country's population of 7.6 million.

While Israeli Arabs are citizens with full voting rights, in contrast to their Palestinian brethren in the neighboring West Bank and Gaza Strip, they frequently suffer discrimination _ in employment, education, municipal budgets and land allocation.

Many of Israel's Arabs openly identify with the Arab world, with lawmakers and civic figures frequently traveling to meet leaders in Arab nations hostile to the Jewish state.

In one extreme case, former lawmaker Azmi Bishara came under heavy criticism for visiting Syria and meeting President Bashar Assad and officials from the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah. Assad is a bitter foe of Israel, who provides aid to Hezbollah and the Hamas militant group.

Bishara later fled the country after he was accused of spying for Hezbollah, which battled Israel to a stalemate in a month-long war in 2006. Living in exile, Bishara is now a popular pundit on Arabic language channel Al-Jazeera, where he urges Arab demonstrators to overthrow their regimes.

Among Arabs here, Bishara is still widely seen as a hero for confronting Israel. But the new photos of other Arab leaders _ including religious officials and lawmakers _ praising Gadhafi seem to be too much for their public to bear.

The photographs show delegation members posing beside Gadhafi, who wears black sunglasses, a turban, shiny brown pants and a shirt concealed by a darker brown wrap. The photographs, published on different Arab-Israeli websites, suggest some representatives took turns standing next to the Libyan leader.

Ahmed Tibi, a prominent Arab lawmaker, called Gadhafi "the leader of the Arab leaders, king of the Arab kings," according to an official transcript published on a Libyan government news website.

Tibi told The Associated Press his comments were taken out of context and the majority of his speech was devoted to criticizing the lack of educational and social progress in the Arab world _ positions that have won praise in the mainstream Israeli media. Still, he didn't take Gadhafi to task. Tibi sent a copy of his speech to the AP.

As Gadhafi's forces continue a crackdown that has reportedly included firing on protesters and launching airstrikes on rebel positions, such revelations have sparked soul-searching in the Arab community. Some constituents accuse their leaders of hypocrisy that is harming their cause.

"If you hug dictators who oppress and kill their people _ what's your moral position then?" asked poet Salman Masalha, who criticized the visits in a series of editorials.

Mohammed Zeidan, another delegation member, said many felt uncomfortable even at the time.

Minders prohibited them from leaving their hotels, telling them the visit _ organized by Libya's ambassador to Jordan _ was just to meet Gadhafi. They were instructed to call him "the brother, the leader."

They were flown out to the Libyan desert, then bused to a giant tent where they met Gadhafi. After fawning speeches by some delegation members _ including radical Muslim leader Sheik Raed Salah _ Gadhafi rambled for 40 minutes, Zedian said.

"He talked about Israel's nuclear power, but he said, 'You can challenge this by marrying two, three and four wives and having lots of children.' He said we could be a demographic challenge to their nuclear weapons," Zeidan laughed.

Some delegation members said they felt squeamish after the visit. Nonetheless, they said it important outreach to promote their plight.

"People tell us we should reach out to the people _ not to the regimes," Zoabi wrote in a recent editorial. "Should we wait for democratic regimes to reach out and answer our call for opening relations with the Arab world?"