About 1 million Arabs live in Israel as citizens of the Jewish state. Those who are old enough may vote in Israeli elections, and they regularly send a handful of their own to parliament.
Yet Israeli Arabs feel like second-class citizens--a fact underscored these days by the fierce debate over whether an Israeli Arab legislator should be able to serve on a committee that handles sensitive security issues.
When it first came up, the mere idea horrified some Jewish politicians. It would be dangerous, they warned, to reveal military secrets to someone whose loyalty to the state was in question.
Unlike Jewish citizens, Israeli Arabs do not serve in the army, and many support the Palestinian cause--too enthusiastically, for the taste of Jewish nationalists.
But newly elected Prime Minister Ehud Barak, after initially angering Arab political parties by ignoring them, is under pressure to fulfill campaign promises to improve the lot of Israel's Arabs, who voted nearly unanimously for Barak in his May 17 victory.
And so, for the first time in its 50-year history, the Knesset, or parliament, has appointed an Arab, Hashem Mahameed, to the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee.
"A taboo is broken," Mahameed, 54, said from his home in the Israeli Arab city of Umm al Fahm, where he has lived all his life and was mayor in the 1980s. "This is an important step for the Knesset, but we still do not know how the Barak government will behave toward the Arab population."
Israeli Arabs, who make up about 18% of the country's population, suffer from deeply entrenched discrimination. Their separate school system is inferior. Nearly half live below the poverty line, and their rates of unemployment and infant mortality are twice the national average.
In a land where war is still fresh in people's memories, they are often seen by Jewish Israelis as a fifth column, and by Palestinians who live in the West Bank, Gaza or the diaspora as Middle Eastern Uncle Toms.
Mahameed does not deny that he makes public statements casting Israel as an occupying power. And he has advocated that Palestinians "use all means" in their "struggle for liberation."
But he also supports Israel's right to exist and wants to remain a citizen of Israel, even in the event that a separate Palestinian state is created. His goal, he says, like for most Israeli Arabs, is integration, a share in the decision-making powers of the state.
At the heart of this debate is whether Israel can be a Jewish state, as it was designed to be, and also a democracy, with equal rights for all its citizens.
The appointment of Mahameed provoked outcry from the formerly ruling right-wing Likud Party. In reaction, the Likud will put forward a no-confidence motion in a long-shot effort to topple Barak's embryonic government.
The Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee provides civilian oversight to security policy, and it regularly receives closed-door briefings from senior military and intelligence officers.
Moshe Arens, a Likud veteran who served twice as defense minister, said that including Mahameed on the defense committee would undermine its authority because he can't be trusted.
Mahameed dismisses his critics as racists. But he has agreed to stay off the panel's subcommittees, where the most secret matters are discussed.