It is hard to envisage an Arab Knesset member declaring that “if something were to happen to Israel, this democracy that protects everyone, the whole Middle East would be doomed.”

But that is Aatef Karinaoui’s declared conviction, and it explains why he is forming the first pro-Israel Arab party, El Amal Lat’gir — “Hope for Change” in Arabic – to run in the Knesset elections on January 22, 2013.

Karinaoui gives the impression of a man who believes his time has come. A 42-year-old resident of the Bedouin city of Rahat in the Negev, he is a traditional Muslim but does not consider himself religious. Though involved in politics for nearly two decades, and exceedingly busy preparing his Knesset campaign, he is soft-spoken and patient. In fact, when we recently spoke, in a cafe at Ben Gurion Airport, he repeatedly extended our chat to accommodate my questions — despite the nudging of his staff. And his anger at Israeli Arab politicians, who he says cultivate the division between Jewish and Arab Israelis, clearly runs deep.

“All the bad things they say about Israel and its supposed ill-treatment of Arabs is a lie, a bald-faced lie,” he says intently, just moments after we’ve sat down. “Arab members of Knesset are setting a fire. They feed off of the politics of division and don’t represent the Arab public. The Arab Knesset members do nothing to educate them or advance their situation… But [at present] there is no alternative to the current leadership.”

By forming El Amal Lat’gir, which he says is loyal to Israel and concerned exclusively with social matters, Karinaoui aims to provide that alternative.

Karinaoui, who is married with five children (including a daughter currently on a national service program), is the chairman of the nonprofit organization Social Equality and National Service in the Arab Sector, which encourages Arabs to shoulder a share of the national service burden. He’s also in charge of operating computer centers in Arab cities throughout Israel as part of the Finance Ministry’s Lehava project, whose goal is to “narrow the digital gap” by providing access to the Internet in lower-income areas of the country.

“We don’t need the Arab members of Knesset to obsess over marginal matters and foreign affairs as they’ve been doing,” he declares. Arab MK Hanin Zoabi participated in the May 2010 Mavi Marmara bid to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, for instance, while her colleague Ibrahim Saroor last year denounced the American “murder” of Osama bin Laden.

“We have real, pressing concerns -– 15 people living in a single house, land issues, education problems,” says Karinaoui. “We have plenty to deal with. But [Arab MKs] distance us from the mainstream and don’t want progress. Their leadership is the real failure.”

Karinaoui believes that given the chance, he can make a real difference. “Our leaders have defrauded us for 60 years. Give us a single Knesset mandate and we will do more for the people in four to five years than they have done in 60.”

His Knesset bid is just getting off the ground, he says, asserting that information from his canvassing indicates his list could win five to six seats — an ambitious estimate, since Arab parties mustered just 11 seats between them in the outgoing Knesset. He is working flat-out building up the party, all day every day, he says, and is putting together a team of volunteers to go door-to-door in Arab towns and villages, planning advertising in Arabic papers, arranging speeches in mosques and building a website.

Karinaoui is currently working out of the northern towns of Sakhnin, Arabe and Tamra — none of them Bedouin towns, he stresses, underlining the goal to galvanize the entire Israel Arab community. Coming from a clan estimated to number some 8,000 makes for a good basis, he says.

Star of David? No problem

But it’s not just the perceived failure of Arab politicians to deliver that drives him; Karinaoui also very much identifies with the State of Israel. He wants to see Arab Israelis fully engaged as citizens, and taking responsibility for the change that they can bring about.

“We want to prove that we are loyal and faithful citizens,” he says. “And we also need more attention and support from the state.… I’m a proud Arab and a proud Israeli too. I’m not Palestinian.… Look at Syria. Look at Egypt, look at Libya, look at Tunisia, and look at Bahrain: the problem is not Israel, it’s the Arabs.”

Karinaoui’s tack echos a recent, widely circulated op-ed in which Abdulateef Al-Mulhim, a retired commodore of the Royal Saudi Navy, asked Arabs to stop pointing the finger at Israel. But Al-Mulhim doesn’t live in Israel, a country where democracy comes hand in hand with Jewish symbols and mythology.

‘If there is more cooperation between Arabs and Jews in Israel, we will broadcast that and fight the libel in the Middle East to show the Arab public that we are part of Israel and proud of it and that we get what we deserve and this will bring immense benefits to Israel. And even the Iranians will have nothing to say’

“I have no problem with the Star of David on the flag or with the national anthem –- no problem at all,” he says. “Israel is a democracy, and I respect every country that is a democracy. Israel did not expel me. I kept my land. I have the right under the law to do whatever I want to do, even to become prime minister.

“We Arabs need to thank God that we live in this democratic country.”

Karinaoui volunteered for military service at the age of 26, and still completes his reserve duty whenever called, “because I am a citizen and I like it and this is what a citizen has to do.”

In order to give his community a voice in government, Karinaoui joined the Likud Central Committee in 1995. Within a year, he became an adviser in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office, later advising Nathan Sharansky at the Ministry of the Interior and Tzachi Hanegbi at the Environmental Protection Ministry, under Ariel Sharon’s premiership. In the 2006 elections, he ran for Knesset in the utterly unrealistic 67th spot on the Likud list.

Why was he placed so low? Because the party ranks candidates on the basis of how many votes they’ll likely draw, he acknowledges, and the fact is that few Israeli Arabs will vote Likud. But he showed, he says, that there was room for him even within the “nationalist” Likud tent, underlining the capacity to build what he calls an Arab voice from within.

Aatef Karinaoui (left) in front on a Menorah. He says Israel's Jewish symbols shouldn't be a problem for the country's Arab population. (photo credit: courtesy)

Aatef Karinaoui (left) in front on a menorah. He says Israel’s Jewish symbols shouldn’t be a problem for the country’s Arab population. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Cooperation, not corruption

Karinaoui’s straight talk can come across as refreshing in a political system that many in Israel consider steeped in excuses and evasions. And he sees in Israeli Arab politics the same pathologies –- corruption and demagoguery — that triggered the Arab Spring.

“The voter turnout in the Arab sector in Israel is a mere 47 percent… And of that 47%, the majority are fake votes!” he asserts. “I am absolutely certain that [Arab Knesset members] receive money from foreign agents — maybe Iran, Hamas, Nasrallah, for instance. The state needs to investigate this. Where do they get all their assets and funding? These people come into politics with nothing and suddenly they are driving fancy cars, they own land.

“It is exactly what is happening in the Palestinian Authority,” he states, alluding to stories of deep-seated corruption in the ruling Fatah party. “The people are hungry, and these politicians get rich.”

Noting my surprise at the fierce assertions, he adds: “I know this because I see it; I live it.”

To change the way things are done, Karinaoui proposes cooperation. “What I want is to solve our problems here, as part of Israeli society, hand in hand with the Jewish public,” he says.

Karinaoui has canvassed the Arab public’s reaction to his ideas and found, he says, that Arab Israelis, who “currently see no hope,” yearn for the kind of changes that he is proposing. He wants to embody that hope in the next Knesset. “In one month we can have a revolution, but we need help,” he says, referring to the professional public relations team and infrastructure needed to conduct an effective campaign.

The hand that feeds

Karinaoui’s call for cooperation with Israel is a departure from the rhetoric of current Arab Israeli politicians in Knesset, whose public identities are in large part Palestinian. “I am not Palestinian, that is nonsense,” he says dismissively. “These Israeli Arab politicians who hold Israeli IDs — let them try to run for office in the Palestinian Authority. Let them see if the Palestinians and Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] receive their candidacy as ‘Palestinians.’ They could be dead the next day.”

Karinaoui is adamant about defending Israel’s record as a democratic state – and in doing so he aspires to speak for the entire Arab community.

‘The real terrorism is not outside. It is our leadership. It is the crime, the poverty, the drugs and arms that plague our communities. It is Arab leaders teaching our kids to hate’

“Israel is a wonderful place for Arabs,” he declares. “It is the only democracy in the Middle East. Look at what the Arabs are doing to each other all over the Middle East. We don’t want to focus on that anymore here. People want to advance within the State of Israel, where they were born, and, yes, under the Israeli flag.”

Karinaoui stresses his conviction that rapprochement between Jewish and Arab citizens here will lead to benefits abroad as well as at home.

“If there is more cooperation between Arabs and Jews in Israel, we will broadcast that and fight the libel in the Middle East, to show the Arab public that we are part of Israel and proud of it, and that we get what we deserve,” he argues. “This will bring immense benefits to Israel. And even the Iranians will have nothing to say.”

As for the key issue of land ownership — a subject that regularly finds Israel’s Bedouin, including those from his own home town of Rahat, at bitter odds with the Israeli government, he says simply that such disputes cannot be solved through protests and violence, and certainly not by a resort to the brandishing of Palestinian flags. Change has to be achieved via peaceful means, he says. “In war mode, someone always loses.”

Change starts at home

Aside from avowals of gratitude and loyalty to Israel, nationalistic issues don’t really concern Karinaoui. It’s the growing wealth gaps in Israel and what he sees as inadequate Israeli Arab leadership that most bother him. And he considers those problems to be urgent.

“The real terrorism is not outside; it is our leadership,” he says. “It is the crime, the poverty, the drugs and arms that plague our communities. It is Arab leaders teaching our kids to hate. That is the real terrorism. It is inconceivable that a young wife living in the Negev is separated from her husband all week because his only job is up north and hers is there, and yet that happens all the time. There are up to 12,000 teachers that are out of work,” he continues, lamenting the joblessness rate even among the educated.

But despite his outrage, Karinaoui’s reflections on Israel’s economy remain nuanced. He is not, for instance, among those who unreservedly laud Israel’s high-tech boom. “Young people today all want to make it in high-tech, to create start-ups, to make money. Everyone is looking out for themselves; not nearly enough young people are thinking of careers that benefit society, like becoming doctors, or lawyers, something to help… the weak and elderly.”

He leans in to drive home the point. “Who will take care of you and me when we are old?” he asks, pointing to the white whiskers in my beard. “They don’t have gray hair like this at our age in Saudi Arabia. It’s stress that does this. People are suffering here.”

Aatef Karinaoui (photo credit: courtesy)

Aatef Karinaoui (photo credit: Courtesy)

His desire for Arabs to face their own problems is why Karinaoui sees national service (in lieu of military service) as a potential boon for his community. Yet he regards this as a case in which the deeds of successive Israeli governments hardly match their words.

“National service for all is important,” he asserts. “You help your people: women, the elderly, and children… I encourage it every day. But regardless of what they say, the state doesn’t want it because setting up the infrastructure costs money.”

The logic strikes him as myopic. “It would bring in money, by building local authorities, the proper collection of taxes, people feeling that they have a stake and an interest. And it will contribute so much to the advancement of our community that people will embrace it.”

“We need to invest in local councils, infrastructure,” he says.

Politics of division

Because Karinaoui wants his community to throw in its lot with other Israelis, he sees anti-Israel rhetoric among Israeli Arabs not just as a problem for Israel’s security, but also as a clear and present danger to his own people.

‘The Arab leadership has failed and needs to resign and let the Arab public evolve. And the Arab public needs to wake up’

“[Arab Israeli leaders] are hurting the Arab public and bringing us to the brink of an abyss,” he warns. “There were celebrations in some northern Arab communities when Katyusha rockets were fired into Israel by Hezbollah [during the 2006 Second Lebanon War]. There was celebrating and the waving of foreign flags as the bombs fell. And then those bombs fell on Arabs too…. All you see is hatred. Even among Arabs, we hate each other. Why? We live in a democracy. The Arab leadership has failed and needs to resign and let the Arab public evolve. And the Arab public needs to wake up.”

He castigates Arab politicians at length for misleading their public with what he considers incendiary remarks and political games.

“They distance Arabs from the Jewish majority, and that helps them politically. And it helps parties like [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Liberman’s [Yisrael Beytenu] too. Liberman and [Arab Knesset Member Ahmad] Tibi help each other. We don’t want Israelis to hate us. We were born here; we live here; this is our country. The present Arab leadership is convincing the Arab public that the Jews are leaving this land, and will continue to leave out of despair if we continue to tire them.”

Karinaoui, by contrast, makes plain he wants the Jews to stay because, he says, “We want cooperation and the mixing of people and the development of businesses in our villages…. If we had the country that the present Arab leaders say that they want, we would have a situation like Syria here… Why are they doing so much damage to our relationship with Jewish Israelis?”

“We need an Arab Spring here in Israel,” he adds, “against our own Arab leaders.”