updated 1/28/2007 7:26:38 AM ET 2007-01-28T12:26:38

The Israeli government on Sunday approved the appointment of the country’s first Muslim Cabinet member, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office said.

The appointment of Raleb Majadele as a minister without portfolio is expected to go before parliament for final confirmation on Monday.

Majadele, a parliamentary backbencher, says his appointment is meant to give representation to Israel’s Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of the country’s 7 million citizens. He has predicted that in future, every Israeli government will be obliged to include an Arab minister.

Arabs lag behind Israel’s Jewish population in income, education and standard of living, and have long lacked representation in government commensurate with their numbers. Israel’s 120-seat parliament includes 13 Arab members.

Israel has had only one Arab Cabinet minister before: Salah Tarif, a Druse, who was appointed in 2001 and forced to resign nine months later under a cloud of corruption allegations.

Majadele’s road to a Cabinet seat has, however, been dogged by political squabbling in Olmert’s fractious coalition government. The Yisrael Beiteinu party opposed the appointment, with one member decrying it as “a fatal blow to Zionism.”

Defense Minister Amir Peretz, the embattled Labor Party leader, plucked Majadele from political obscurity to fill a vacant Cabinet post designated for the centrist party.

Peretz, who has been deeply unpopular since last summer’s inconclusive war in Lebanon, has been criticized for using the nomination to try to shore up his political support ahead of Labor’s upcoming party primaries.

Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, the only Cabinet member to vote against the appointment, accused Peretz of exploiting the nomination to seek Arab backing in the primary voting. But he rejected allegations of racism.

“I have no problem with an Arab minister,” Lieberman told Israeli Army Radio. “I have no problem with a Muslim, Christian or Druse minister.”

Lieberman favors redrawing Israel’s border to exclude most of the country’s Arab population.

The nomination even drew fire from inside Labor. Druse members protested that the Druse, who identify with Israel and serve in the armed forces — unlike most Muslim and Christian Arabs — were passed over for the ministerial post.

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