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In Israeli Election, Arab Sportscaster Runs On Ticket Of Mainstream Jewish Party


We're going to hear next about a parliamentary candidate in this month's Israeli elections who faces tough questions about where his loyalties lie. He's an Arab-Israeli, like 20 percent of the country's voters, but he's running with a mainstream Jewish party. NPR's Emily Harris has his profile.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Israeli sports fans have known Zouheir Bahloul for ages.


ZOUHEIR BAHLOUL: (Speaking foreign language).

HARRIS: Now 63 years old, Bahloul built a successful career sports casting on Israeli TV. But he decided to go into politics because of last summer's war in Gaza.

BAHLOUL: In the last war, the relationship between Arab and Jews was in a crisis - in a very deep crisis.

HARRIS: Angry feelings ran deep between Israeli Jews and Arabs, bursting sometimes into threatening confrontations. Bahloul appeared as a commentator on Israeli news programs trying to bridge the divide.

BAHLOUL: I was so sad about the confrontation between the both side, and I find myself as a broker between the both sides, the Arab and the Jews.

HARRIS: When he decided to run for Parliament, he says he considered joining an Arab-Israeli party, but he went with a mainstream Jewish-Israeli Party, Labor.

BAHLOUL: I decided that I'm going to the Labor from the simple decision the Labor Party is in the middle, and I want to be in the middle.

HARRIS: He made that pitch recently at a community meeting in Abu Gosh, an Arab-Israeli town near Jerusalem.

BAHLOUL: (Speaking Arabic).

HARRIS: Bahloul told the room full of men he sees himself as a symbol of consensus between Israeli-Arabs and Jews, a pragmatic realist who wants Israel to value its Arab citizens more. But his joining the Labor Party didn't go over so well. Voter Mohammad Abdel Rahman says he sees no difference between the mainstream left and right parties in Israel, and he won't vote for either.

MOHAMMAD ABDEL RAHMAN: (Through interpreter) Democracy means voting for someone who represents your views, your thinking. As a person, Zouheir Bahloul represents my ambitions, but not the party he joined.

HARRIS: Arab-Israelis have served in Parliament as members of predominantly Jewish parties before. But Jafar Farah, head of the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel, says Bahloul will face the common question of whose side he's really on.

JAFAR FARAH: I know that he feels proud Palestinian. I know that he wants to get the rights of the community. I've known him for the last 25 years. But unfortunately, many people, especially the ones that need to participate in this political game in Israel, need to compromise.

HARRIS: Bahloul says he is Arab and Palestinian first, then Israeli. I ask him how he succeeded in Israel when many Arabs have not. Bahloul calls the question explosive, but acknowledges he's better off than the majority of Arab-Israelis.

BAHLOUL: Because, you know, there is needs in Israel for some excellent Arab people in Israel, some. And I took my opportunity. But the major Arab people has not the real opportunities in Israel.

HARRIS: Haifa University political science professor Asad Ghanem says Bahloul will have little influence as an Arab-Israeli in a mainly Jewish party. But under the current government, he says, Arab parties don't either.

ASAD GHANEM: If you want really to change who governs in Israel instead of Netanyahu, then the only alternative that we have is to work in some kind of close relationship with the Israeli center and the Israeli left.

HARRIS: That's where Zouheir Bahloul intends to begin. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.