Arab Knesset Members Challenge Israeli Democracy
Tue, 08/17/2010
Special To The Jewish Week

Some Arab members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, are stepping up their belligerent approach, openly siding with Israel’s enemies. While representing a small minority of Israel’s 1.3 million Arab citizens, their actions could endanger Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.

Knesset member Haneen Zoabi, of the Balad party, was on the Turkish vessel that tried to land in Hamas-ruled Gaza on May 31, seeking to break the Israeli blockade. Earlier that month, six Arab Knesset members traveled to Libya to meet with President Muammar Gaddafi.

Engaging Arab leaders who are at war with Israel is not a new phenomenon. Twenty-two years ago, Knesset member Abdulwahab Darawshe flew from Ben-Gurion Airport to Cyprus, where he intended to catch a flight to Amman to address the PLO’s Palestine National Assembly. He returned home after Jordan refused to issue a visa.

But there was a key difference. Darawshe aspired to be a bridge-builder, to overcome the paradox that bedevils Israeli Arabs — their country, Israel, is at war with their people, Palestinians. Since Arab politicians who grow up in Israel are fluent in both Arabic and Hebrew, familiarity with both worlds could, theoretically, help build mutual understanding.

But Zoabi’s Balad party and others like it move in the opposite direction. They advocate for Hamas, which seeks Israel’s destruction, and call for autonomy for Israel’s Arab citizens, now 20 percent of the country’s population. This is a minority view among Israeli Arabs. Most are primarily concerned with improving their economic and social conditions, and doing so as active Israeli citizens. A majority support Labor, Likud and Kadima, recognizing that success in redressing the inequalities in Israeli society lies in working with the Jewish majority.

Ahmad Tibi, who lives in Taybeh and heads the Ta’al party, was for a number of years a senior adviser to Yasir Arafat. He served on the official Palestinian delegation at the 1998 Wye River peace talks with Israel. Tibi ostensibly severed his PLO connections when he first ran for the Knesset in 1999 as a Balad member, but his oratory would suggest he still favors the Palestinian agenda.

Yet, in a recent Los Angeles Times interview, Tibi, who is still in the Knesset, made clear that he would never give up his Israeli citizenship and replace it with a future Palestinian identity. Indeed, Israeli Arab politicians admit they prefer to stay in Israel because it is a democracy, while Palestinian society is not. After all, the PA cancelled legislative elections in January and, more recently, municipal elections in the West Bank.

Balad founder Azmi Bishara, who served in the Knesset from 1996 to 2007, made several trips to Damascus during his tenure. As suspicions mounted regarding his relationship with Hezbollah, Bishara disappeared for weeks in 2007, finally re-emerging briefly in Cairo to announce he was not returning to Israel.

In the run-up to the 2009 Knesset elections, Israel’s Central Election Committee, responding to a complaint from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, banned Balad and Ta’al. But Israel’s Supreme Court, a cornerstone of Israeli democracy, quickly overturned that decision, allowing them to run last year, as in prior Knesset elections.

These Arab Knesset members nonetheless continue to make statements and take actions that test the resiliency of Israeli democracy in ways that would certainly never be tolerated in Arab countries — definitely not in the Palestinian Authority.

Serving in the Knesset probably gave Zoabi confidence to be on the Mavi Mamara, the vessel Israeli commandos boarded, together with dozens of armed members of IHH, the Islamist Turkish charity with close ties to Hamas. Zoabi, though not involved in the violence, was spared arrest in Israel due to her parliamentary immunity. The Knesset nonetheless voted in July to strip her of three parliamentary privileges, including the right to travel on a diplomatic passport.

Displaying a lack of faith in the system in which he serves, Knesset member Afu Aghbaria of Hadash took his complaints far from home. Addressing a European Parliament hearing in June, Aghbaria called on the International Criminal Court to try Israeli leaders for their treatment of Palestinians as well as Israeli Arabs. “In its 62 years of existence, Israel has attacked its neighbors and its Arab citizens nonstop,” said Aghbaria.

Knesset members Nahman Shai of Kadima and Einat Wilf of Labor, who were also in Brussels with Aghbaria, were outraged. “It is very grave,” they said, when “an Arab MK comes and arouses tempers and takes advantage of his position to call on the European Parliament to enact sanctions on Israel.”

That’s the crux of the matter. Every democracy has opposition parties. But in Israel several Arab parliamentarians continue to exploit their status to openly challenge the very legitimacy of the state. This does not bode well for fruitful Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. The sooner Israeli Arab leaders can constructively address this dichotomy, the better for their communities and all Israelis. n

Kenneth Bandler is director of communications for the American Jewish Committee.

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