The Middle East Channel

Likud, Israeli Arabs, and the one-state solution

The Knesset, the Israeli parliament, is on summer recess. It went out with a bang — the withdrawal of several privileges from Balad MK Hanin Zoabi, in retribution for her participation in the Gaza aid flotilla in May. The parliament is due to return to a stormier session still on October 3rd, with the deadline ...

Getty images
Getty images

The Knesset, the Israeli parliament, is on summer recess. It went out with a bang — the withdrawal of several privileges from Balad MK Hanin Zoabi, in retribution for her participation in the Gaza aid flotilla in May. The parliament is due to return to a stormier session still on October 3rd, with the deadline for the settlement construction freeze expiring just a week earlier and the two-state solution being put to what many believe may be its final test. The fate of the two-state process will likely be reflected in relations between Arabs and Jews in parliament — from suspicions of double loyalty to the beginnings on an unlikely agreement.

"I don’t care about the death threats to me that much," says Zoabi, "My assistant deals with those. The real danger is the de-legitimizing of the political views my party represents." 

Balad actually managed to not lose a seat in the last elections, but Arab citizens of Israel are barely represented in Knesset. Non -Zionist parties take up 11 seats out of the Knesset’s 120; less then 10 percent of the parliament, as opposed to their electorate’s 20 percent of the population. The secular-nationalist Balad holds three seats; Raam-Taal, a nationalist alliance with the Islamic Movement holds four; Hadash, a Jewish-Arab party — which makes it Arab as far as most Jewish Israelis are concerned — holds four. A handful of Arab and Druze Mks sit in the Zionist parties, like Kadima and Likud.

Over the summer, Zoabi, who rose through party ranks under the personal tutelage of party founder Azmi Beshara, became the focal point of growing hostility between Jewish and Arab MKs from non-Zionist parties for her decision to participate in the Gaza aid flotilla in late May. Although she was not formally accused of any crime, upon her return to Israel the Knesset House Committee proposed that parliament confiscate her diplomatic passport and deny her rights to normal legal reimbursements. 

Despite urgings from committee chair Yariv Levin (Likud), Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin delayed the plenum’s vote on the sanctions against her by a month, hoping emotions would calm down by then. When the plenum finally convened, however, they voted in the affirmative, amid heckles and accusations of treachery, with one Yisrael Beitenu MK presenting Zoabi with an enormous mock-up of an Iranian passport. 

"If you are a traitor and have been convicted as a traitor, you can be expelled from the Knesset, or even put in jail, whether you are an Arab or a Jew," said Rivlin. Rivlin. "If you’re not a traitor, your immunity cannot be removed and they can only take away symbolic privileges." 

"But in principle, the question we face is whether a minority can be steamrolled by a majority. If it can, this may start with Arabs, and go on to coalition versus opposition. A parliament that becomes a quasi-judicial institution poses a clear risk to democracy."

As for the motives of the rightist MKs, Rivlin recalled the Jewish proverb about the face of a generation being like the face of a dog that runs ahead but keeps looking back at its master. "Leaders should lead," he says, while the MKs who initiated the Zoabi sanctions instead pander to a populist streak of intolerance spreading among their constituents. 

All non-Zionist parties sit in opposition almost by default. Rightist governments don’t need them, and Leftist government fear that the liability of inviting in parties that challenge the very essence of state ideology, and are seen as part foreign by many Israelis, outweighs the rather small numerical advantage they’ll bring to the coalition. The non-Zionist parties themselves are also not keen on being too close to Zionist-Israeli governments. Zoabi points out that the tensions have always been there, but recent years have seen tensions rise almost to a tipping point, especially in the aftermath of the Lebanon war.

A survey held in March found 56 percent of Jewish youths under 18 believe Arabs citizens should not be allowed to vote. Charges of treason are routinely hurled about both in the Knesset podium and in the parliamentary committees; a report by the Coalition against Racism in Israel found the current assembly of the Knesset to be the most racist in the parliament’s history, with a record number of bills directly targeting Arab citizens of Israel. 

While Israel is often quick to use the Knesset’s Arab parliamentarians as living rebuttals to accusations of institutional racism, many Jewish MKs nonetheless view their Arab colleagues with a perpetual suspicion of dual loyalty: to both Palestinians across the Green Line and the extremists in their midst, and to the Arab world in general. The only Arabs excluded from this alleged pan-Arab loyalty, the rightist critics claim, are the MKs’ own electorate. 

"They like to say we’re not representative," says Zoabi, "that the Arab public in Israel is moderate and we are the radicals inciting them. The only MK I heard agreeing that what we say is what our public believes is [ultra-right wing] Aryeh Eldad, who said the election results clearly indicate the Arab street supports us." Eldad may not be motivated entirely by solidarity, however: at the Knesset session discussing the withdrawal of Zoabi’s privileges, Eldad delivered a short lecture on the life story of WWII pro-German British propagandists Lord Haw Haw, emphasizing his death by hanging and dishonorable burial.

As the scenes in parliament grow uglier, more and more Palestinian citizens of Israel appear to be losing trust in political institutions altogether. Electoral participation by Arab citizens has been dropping steadily since the decade of the Second Intifada, with 75% in 1999, compared to only 53% in 2008. 

This doesn’t even take into account the stark drop off of Israeli-Arab electoral participation in the only direct elections to premiership, when Ehud Barak squared off against then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon in 2001. Still reeling from the onset of the Intifada and the deaths of 13 Israeli Arab protesters at the hands of Israeli police a few months earlier, and distrustful of choosing between the two men whom they saw as jointly responsible for the preceding havoc, the Arab voters chose not to choose: only 18% took part in those elections.

Though an outlier of sorts, the prospects are anything but bright. "In the last elections, nearly half of the Arab population didn’t vote," says Dr. Ahmad Tibi, chairman of the nationalist Raam-Ta’al party and deputy speaker of the Knesset. "But I think only a few of those are ideological
ly boycotting the elections. Most of them are apathetic and frustrated with the establishment. This needs to be worked upon, because an Arab who doesn’t take part in the elections helps the right — it’s not like if we boycott the elections, someone is going to keep our seats for us. There will simply be 11 more right-wingers in the Knesset".

Tibi, who began his political career as adviser to the late Yasser Arafat, before running for the Knesset in 1999, is a typical target of the deep apprehension Israelis feel about Arab parliamentarians who publicly emphasize cultural and national links with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. After the Knesset voted to sanction Zoabi, the bill’s sponsor, self-described Kahane follower MK Michael Ben Ari, told Tibi: "You’re next in line."

The deputy speaker scoffs at the adage that the Arab MKs are a bridge to the Arab world ("Sure we’re a bridge — they walk all over us," he quips), but he sees no reason to deny the Palestinian connection. "The Palestinian nation is like a triangle," he says. "One side, the longest one, consists of the Palestinians of 67. Another side is the Palestinian Diaspora, and the last, the smallest one, is us, the Palestinians of 1948. Without us, the Palestinian nation is incomplete. But when I say that I’m a Palestinian Arab and a citizen of Israel, Israelis get upset. Why? Where do they think we came from, UFOs? Still, more and more Israelis are beginning to get used to the idea."

While much of the media focuses on the angry exchanges of rhetoric between Arab MK’s and their Jewish colleagues, the legislative process itself serves as an important arena for both conflict and cooperation. Tibi himself initiated a number of clever ‘left-wing’ bills which he knew the government, despite the obvious embarrassment, would reject out of hand: a bill prohibiting discrimination in allocation of state land, a bill entering the ruling of the International Court of Justice on the West Bank barrier into Israeli law, and more. 

But he also pushed forward bills on drugs and alcohol regulation, against corruption, for compensation for passengers whose flights have been delayed, and a ban on selling gambling tickets to minors — the latter bill co-sponsored with nationalist Jewish MK Zevulon Orlev (National Union). Hadash, the only distinctly Jewish-Arab party, has launched ecological and social bills co-sponsored with some of the most dyed-in-the-wool Jewish hawks.

And while verbal and procedural assaults are certainly on the rise, there’s also some reaching out across the aisles — from both sides.

In January, Tibi spoke from the Knesset podium on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. He recounted the story of two Holocaust survivors, derided Holocaust denial in the strongest possible terms, and urged that Jews who have been victims show empathy to the victims of their own politics. The speech, which spoke directly to Israelis’ darkest fears, was met with accolades, and Tibi was met with a torrent of positive press — up to and including Israel’s most radically-centrist pundit, Yair Lapid, who interviewed him on prime time, to the moving sounds of a string orchestra. 

"I’m a man with a democratic, humanist, liberal outlook," Tibi says. "As an Arab intellectual, I cannot ignore history. I live in the same country with a people that have experienced a terrible tragedy, the worst crime of all history. And I think that what the Jewish person feels has ramifications on his conduct, both in Israel and in the region. So I have every amount of empathy for Holocaust survivors." Tibi is not the only one reaching out — Hadash MK Barakeh joined a delegation of MKs to Holocaust sites in Poland, gathering support from some of the media and sneers from his Rightist fellow parliamentarians. 

"But I’m also asking the Jews to be more attentive to the victims of victims," says Tibi. "I ask them to feel the pain of a mother in Gaza burying her daughters, or of a Palestinian in Um El Fahm who feels looked down upon because he’s not Jewish. "

"The Arab community is certainly discriminated against " agrees staunch Likudnik Rivlin, who made waves a year ago by acknowledging the collective trauma of Palestinians in the war of 1948."Those who discriminate against them will say they’re discriminated against because they’re disloyal, and the Arab community in Israel will counter it’s disloyal because it’s discriminated against. "But the government of Israel, as the sovereign, must dedicate its full attention to bridging the socio-economic gaps between Arabs and Jews, without looking too much into who’s guilty. "

Strangely, it is precisely on the most polarizing of questions — the Israeli occupation and the future of the Palestinian territories — where right-wing Zionist MKs and non-Zionist Arab MKs are beginning to approach what may be a common ground.

Rivlin says mending the gaps within Israel should happen in the context of moving toward a one-state solution across the Green Line. "Barak, Livni, Peres and recently Netanyahu are not even talking about a real state for the Palestinians," he sneers. "They’re talking about an autonomy with no army, borders, control over airspace or telecommunications."                 

"On the other hand, you have the basic fact that contrary to Barak’s slogan — ‘We’re here and they’re there’ — Jews and Arabs today live both here and there, on both sides of the Green line, especially in Jerusalem. Partitioning Jerusalem would lead to continuous bloodshed between segregated enclaves, like in Belfast some years ago. If there’s a threat to Jewish statehood, its less in a bi-national solution than in partitioning the land." 

As for the system of government, he says, there’s plenty to choose from — from a co-dominion along the lines of post WWI Europe, to confederation and beyond. "It was the Zionist Left that introduced the idea of population swaps and transfer," he says. "Jabotinsky, let me remind you, spoke about the Jewish state as having a Jewish prime minister and an Arab deputy prime minister, and vice-versa." But first, he says, Arabs need to acknowledge Jewish nationhood and right to the land, and understand the Jews not going anywhere. "Belfast can be a way forward, but can also be a warning of how easily things can blow up again," he says. 

"Goodness, so we actually agree on something!" exclaims Zoabi, whose party officially supports a "state of all its citizens" — a non-nationalist democracy. "The government’s policy is blocking any reasonable path to a two-state solution. If we go on in that direction, we’re definitely heading for one state, and that one state would have to be bi-national — because there are two nations, two national collectives here."

"It’s not such a bad solution, either," she says.  "Jews will live where they want, Arabs will live where they want, equal rights to everyone, and the collective rights of both Jews and Arabs will be recognized." She says her party has a better relationship with Rivlin than with other MKs, but opines the Speaker misunderstands Balad as more ultra-nationalist than it really is. 

"When I heard Rivlin, (Likud MK Tzipi) Hotovely and former defense minister Moshe Arens talk about one state, I said, you want one-man-one-vote? Welcome to the club," laughs Tibi.  "Although here I would diverge from those arguing for simply a state of all its citizens, and call instead for a state of all its nationalities — highlighting both individual and collective rights. Israel’s reality is already bi-national, even multi-national."

It appears that just as hostility and suspicion between Jews and Arabs is becoming unbearable, a radica
lly different process is beginning to feel its way forward — but the question of which process will prevail in the short and long term remains wide open.

Dmitry Reider is an Israeli journalist whose work has appeared in the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, and the Guardian. He blogs at +972.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola