Arab Becomes Ceremonial Israeli President

Israel got its first Arab president Tuesday, even if it's only for a week.

Acting President Dalia Itzik left Tuesday on a trip to the U.S., leaving Majalli Wahaba, a Druse, as Israel's ceremonial president.

Wahaba's unexpected journey to the president's office began last month when President Moshe Katsav was suspended as he faced multiple criminal charges, including rape. Itzik, who is the speaker of parliament, stepped in to take his place.

With Itzik gone, Wahaba, who is her deputy, takes over both her roles — running the parliament and assuming the presidency — making him the first member of Israel's minority Arab community to serve in the country's top ceremonial post.

Wahaba told The Associated Press that he takes the short-lived promotion seriously, though "I would prefer to be in this position in different circumstances."

Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of Israel's population of 7 million, have suffered from decades of discrimination at the hands of successive governments, landing them in the top percentiles of unemployment and bottom rankings in income and education.

Unlike most other Arab citizens, Druse serve in the Israeli military. Wahaba, 53, attained the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring. He holds a master's degree in Middle East history from Haifa University, according to the parliament's Web site.

Wahaba hoped his temporary ascension to the presidency would symbolize a push for equality for Arab citizens. "Where there is still a lack of equality, we are fighting," he said. "But the fact is that I have all the authorities of the president of the state of Israel."

Wahaba, a member of Itzik's and Prime Minster Ehud Olmert's Kadima Party, said he would carry out the normal functions of the presidency, meeting with diplomats and laying a wreath at a ceremony Thursday in honor of a pre-state Zionist fighter, Yosef Trumpeldor.