On being an Arab lawmaker in Israel

Ahmad Tibi, a member of Israel’s parliament, talks about why he thinks democracy in Israel applies only to Jewish citizens, why he’ll never accept Israel as a Jewish state and why he’ll never leave.

Edmund Sanders

Los Angeles Times

May 23, 2010

Reporting from Jerusalem

As one of Israel’s few Arab lawmakers, Ahmad Tibi knows how to fight to be heard, even when colleagues don’t want to listen.

That determination was never clearer than last month when Tibi, a top political advisor to PLO chairman Yasser Arafat before being elected to the Knesset in 1999, refused to yield the floor during a particularly acrimonious debate. Escorts were summoned to pry his white-knuckled hands off the lectern and lead the 51-year-old away.

Tibi, a former gynecologist, hasn’t lost his sense of humor. On his office walls is a newspaper cartoon of him bound and gagged on the Knesset floor. On a top shelf is a row of fat binders, including one titled “Dead Ends.”

He spoke with the Los Angeles Times about why he thinks democracy in Israel applies only to Jewish citizens, why he’ll never accept Israel as a Jewish state and why he’ll never leave.

You’ve been saying recently that racism in Israel has gone mainstream, moving from the fringes of society into the halls of government, even accusing Israel’s foreign minister and interior minister of being racists. Those are pretty sweeping statements.

Look at what [Israeli Foreign Minister] Avigdor Lieberman and his party are saying and doing. Their motions and proposed laws are pure racism. The so-called loyalty motion demands that we be loyal to Zionism and to Israel as a Jewish state or we won’t be allowed to be a candidate for the Knesset or receive our budget allocation from the state. They say Arabs should be transported to the Palestinian Authority… .

This is a fascist campaign. Lieberman is the equivalent of Jean-Marie Le Pen from France and [the late] Joerg Heider from Austria. But there is one difference. They are all are racists. All conduct a policy of hatred. But Heider was an indigenous politician who was racist against foreigners. Here we are talking about an immigrant politician [Lieberman was born in Moldova] who is racist against the indigenous [Palestinian] people….

In what way don’t Jewish and Arab citizens have equal rights?

There is discrimination in every field of life except one. There is one man, one vote. In elections, all are equal. But in budget allocation, industry, education, land, religious places, employment there are huge gaps between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority. Just visit a couple of towns. You’ll see Jewish cities are very civilized. Arab towns are being strangulated. There has not been one new Arab town in Israel since 1948, but there have been hundreds of [Jewish] settlements.

The state land authority [in many cases has been] allowed to hire or purchase land only for Jews. Non-Jews are not allowed. And we are talking about land that was ours in the past and confiscated. In the early 1950s, we owned 80% of the private land. Now we own 3% of the private land.

We are 20% of the population, but only 6% of the employees in the public sector. This is a built-in discriminatory policy. There is not one Arab official employed in a high-ranking [departmental] post, no legal advisor, no director-general.

If elections are fair and you have one-fifth of the population, isn’t it partly your own fault that Arabs haven’t been able to gain more political clout? You only have about 10% of the Knesset seats. Arab political parties are small and divided. Other, much smaller minority groups in Israel have done a much better job at organizing and exerting influence.

We [Palestinians] are not the same. There are differences in parties and ideologies. There is an idea to bring all parties together on one list. I support that idea. But we didn’t succeed. It’s our fault.

Secondly, half of our voters don’t participate in the [national] election. There are a lot of reasons, but mainly frustration with the system. We should do more to improve and increase the percent of Arabs taking part….

What have you been able to deliver for Arab constituents in terms of tangible benefits or protections? As an Arab MK, can you even get a bill passed?

During the last Knesset, I passed four [laws]. Before that, I passed another four or five. But it’s very difficult for an Arab MK to pass even one motion. Mine were all universal laws that were good for both Jews and Arabs, about medical issues, environment, anti-corruption. But if I brought a law on the issue of land allocation or cessation of discrimination, it would immediately be brought down.

I tried it three months ago with a motion that said simply the allocation of land by the state should be equal for all citizens. I didn’t mention “Jewish” or “Arab” citizens. Automatically the vast majority of the Knesset voted against me. Any motion with the principle or word “equality” will fail. There is not one basic law in the Knesset talking about the value of equal rights. Every Knesset I try to pass it.

As an opposition figure, do you see part of your role to provoke, to criticize, to prod?

To enlighten. To concentrate focus on issues. I’m not that easy to ignore. If [my critics] ever succeed in ignoring me, that’s the day I will no longer stay in the Knesset.

A recent poll found half of Israeli kids don’t think Arabs should serve in the Knesset. What does that say to you?

There is a continuous delegitimization campaign against us. We are described as betrayers. But I can’t betray something I’m not part of. I’m not part of the army. I’m not part of the Zionist ideology. I’m a victim of Zionism…. It’s inhumane to demand that we be loyal to Zionism or accept Israel as a Jewish state. I can’t accept a definition that strengthens the discrimination against non-Jews in Israel.

You don’t accept Israel as a Jewish state?

I want it to be a state of its own nationalities, and the Arab minority to be recognized as a national minority. Israel is, according to the law, defined as a Jewish and democratic state. But there is a contradiction between the two values. If you are democratic, you should believe in equality. But if you define the nation by a Jewish ethnicity, you are saying any Jewish person is superior to a non-Jewish person.

How you do define yourself?

I’m a Palestinian- Arab citizen of Israel. We are part of the Palestinian people but citizens of Israel.

You gave an impassioned speech in January, acknowledging the Jewish suffering in the Holocaust. It was praised by some as one of the best ever delivered in the Knesset. Were you surprised by the reaction? Did it have any lasting impact on relations?

There was overwhelming positive reaction, most importantly, from Jews and Arabs alike. I said, we as Arabs are listening to your historical suffering and pain. I have empathy. You were victims. Now we [Palestinians] are victims of the victims. I wanted them to try to understand our agony and suffering. Those who have suffered so much in the past should be the first to listen to the pain of a Palestinian woman in Gaza. Yet they are not.

Why not?

They are encapsulated by their pain and history. Even when Israelis send a tank to [the West Bank city of] Nablus, they promote the idea that it’s Palestinian aggression. So even when we are the victims, they market themselves as the victim. They occupy this square of victimhood everywhere.

Arab MKs would seem to be a natural bridge in Israeli-Palestinian s peace talks. But you’re rarely at the forefront of that. Why not?

[Israel] doesn’t want this bridge. They view us as a fifth column. The Arab minority is being dealt with as an enemy. They treat us like guests in our own country.

If an independent Palestinian state is formed, where would you choose to live?

I’m a native of Tayibe, and that’s part of the state of Israel. I take my citizenship seriously. I want to improve my citizenship in order to be equal. I don’t want to be removed or treated like a chess piece. I don’t want anyone deported from Israel. But if someone has to leave, it should the ones who arrived last.

edmund.sanders@ latimes.com

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