The first Arab woman to be deputy speaker of the Knesset, Ghaida Rinawie-Zoabi, has spoken of a “deep change” in Jewish Israeli society.
In London as the keynote speaker at the Abraham Initiatives UK Friends, Ms Rinawie-Zoabi said there had been “fundamental social and economic changes” within the Arab community. “There is a growing middle class, and more academic people in more important jobs in public and private sectors”.
Young Arab families, too, had changed their outlook, she said. “They aspire to a different kind of living. They don’t just want equality, they also want quality, in education, housing and employment. And this has led to major shifts in Jewish-Israeli society”.
One such shift, she said, was “a new understanding that partnership with Arab society can be used to build a new future for all of us. There can be partners in culture, employment, but also in politics”.
Though a member of the Meretz party, Ms Rinawie-Zoabi described the entry of Arab parties into the new governing coalition as “something which never happened before and is truly historic”.
Nevertheless, she acknowledged that the emergent status of Arabs into new areas of Israeli society had led to a situation where some Jewish Israelis were “more resentful — perhaps more frightened or anxious. If you look at the splits in parliament — they are mainly about Arab society in Israel and about Arabs being part of the political game.”
She said she had felt personally “very sad” about the fighting which took place in many of the mixed cities in Israel in May this year, primarily between young people in the respective communities. But though she acknowledged there were still “pockets of tension”, she believed that the partnerships built between Arabs and Jews were strong enough to withstand them, and urged the government to be “more pro-active” and invest more in shared society, particularly among young people.
She is one of the architects of the “shared society” concept, in which she has worked for many years: she founded Injaz, the Centre for Professional Arab Local Governance, and has been named both one of the most influential people in Israel, and one of the 50 most important women in the Israeli economy. Besides being deputy speaker, she is a member of the Knesset Finance Committee, long held as the most crucial sub-committee in parliament.
In September she paid a groundbreaking visit to the UAE, meeting leaders of the Al Habtoor business group, to discuss potential two-way investment between Israel and the UAE.
It is almost as much a novelty for some Arab governments to deal with her — a female politician from Israel — as it is for Israeli society. As deputy speaker she comes across her fair share of unhandsome behaviour. But, she says, “for female politicians in general, we need to be much more professional and thick-skinned. I’m not a naive person. But in Israeli politics, sadly, until now, there are a lot of men who still think that they own the place. But by being professional, capable and willing to work in a very sophisticated, strategic way, I believe we provide a fresh take on Israeli politics”.
Ms Rinawie-Zoabi, as one of the new generation of Arab players, did not get one of the top places on Meretz’s list without being shrewd about her public statements. So when she is asked about whether she is ready to challenge the naming of Israel as an apartheid state, she says: “Israel has a lot of positives, and a lot of negatives. One of the major negative points is the issue of the occupation. I don’t believe Israel is an apartheid system but I believe that the occupation must be ended. For Israel to have a much more stable future, we have to fight to end the occupation, and we have to make sure that there is a sustainable, just solution for the Palestinian people”.
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