MK Tibi - Emil Salman
Member of the Knesset Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al). Photo by Emil Salman
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MK Ahmed Tibi of the United Arab List-Ta'al was among the initiators of the delegation of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee to Libya last April. The recent unrest in Libya has reignited criticism of the Arab Knesset members who participated in the visit, and of the underlying objectives of the visit. Tibi speaks out here against the critics, stresses that Jewish MKs also wanted to go along to Libya at the time, and insists the trip should be judged today by the intentions and aims back then - not by what has happened a year later, or in terms of current attitudes toward what he calls the "tahrirization" going on in the Arab world.

MK Ahmed Tibi, in light of the events in Libya and the visit you paid there about a year ago, do you owe people an apology?

"The visit by the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee in which I participated was at the invitation and initiative of the Libyan ambassador in Jordan, Dr. Mohammed Merghani [on behalf of Col. Muammar Gadhafi] ... The visit has to be judged by the intention, which was to bring up the issue of the Arab minority [in Israel] and its needs."

So it is correct to accept an invitation from anyone, without exercising judgment?

"First of all, he invited us and secondly, no one imagined he would do what he is doing a year later. Anyone who says he could have foreseen these events is not speaking the truth and is being deceptive."

Everyone today seems to be in favor of the people and against the regime in Libya, but isn't it true that even before the visit, Gadhafi was not a democrat or a believer in human rights?

"I admit the connection with the Arab world is one that involves non-democratic regimes. There's a difference between visiting and being loyal to or trailing after one regime or another. I am saying clearly and unambiguously that a visit does not constitute an expression of support for Gadhafi's policy in Libya - and such things were said there. For example, I personally expressed criticism of the backwardness in the world as a result of certain regimes, and the fact that rights are not granted to citizens. And we said that the role of the revolutions that erupted and overcame colonialism in the Arab world has been to give freedom and liberty and democracy to the Arab world."

But weren't there also extravagant words of praise and a blurring of the political platform of the Arabs of Israel?

"I spoke about a two-state solution and so did my colleague (Hadash MK ) Mohammed Barakeh, and we spoke about the exclusion of 20 percent of the population of the state and the manifestations of racism. We have said and we are still saying these things from the Knesset podium. Sheik Ra'ad Salah spoke about the holy places and the Al-Aqsa Mosque."

You also asked for money. As citizens of the State of Israel, does this seem legitimate to you?

"It is permissible and in my opinion necessary to ask for financial aid from the Arab world, in light of the exclusion and discrimination against Arab citizens on the part of the State of Israel. Let me remind you that Doha Stadium in Sakhnin would not have been built without the generous aid of the Qatari emir, totaling $6 million. In addition, hundreds of Arab students are receiving scholarships from the government of Jordan to study there in universities and Arab artists, actors and singers seek a connection with the Arab word. This is very important and also stands to reason."

If you receive an invitation from another Arab leader, will you accept it now?

"There is no doubt our calculations will be more cautious and profound. We will take various scenarios into account and we will be self-critical, but it is important to stress that we do not regret our visits in the Arab world. We visited Tunis and Egypt and no one said a word. We do not support the regimes and I don't think there is anyone in the Arab parties today who goes along with one regime or another, or anyone living at the expense of one regime or another. There is no need to judge us for a visit that took place a year ago in light of the pictures that are being published now. We should be judged by our position after they started shooting people in the streets and by how we reacted."

Did you do any soul-searching after the visit?

"I do soul-searching vis-a-vis our public, and not vis-a-vis those rightist and Israeli elements who opposed the visit. Israeli leaders are goveling on all fours to meet Arab leaders. I am telling you there were Israeli [sic] Knesset members who wanted to join the visit to Libya. Ta'al has never been a satellite or a dependent of any totalitarian regime and therefore the visits and the connection with the Arab world will proceed with a more critical and cautious view."

Can you give me a name of a [Jewish] MK who wanted to go?

"If they have the courage they will speak up. I am telling you with certainty that all the MKs of Libyan origin asked [to go], and there were also others."

Will your statements now and those of your colleagues against the regimes and in favor of freedom prevent you from visiting Arab countries in the future?

"That may be the case. We will be judged by our unambiguous statements and our support for the masses. Once again, I say we are in favor of democratization in the Arab world - from the North African countries to the Arab Gulf. At Tahrir Square in Cairo there was something wonderful, the revolution of a young generation, the Facebook generation that overcame the obsolete political parties, and touched freedom and liberty. I hope that what occurred at Tahrir Square - 'tahrirization' - will also occur in many squares in the Arab world."

In the territories of the Palestinian Authority as well?

"In the PA there is a popular movement today that is demanding the end of the split [in the Palestinian people] and I hope this movement will indeed prevail. Masses have also gone to the roadblocks to express a clear position in peaceful ways against the most repressive regime in the Middle East: the occupation."

And to express opposition to the PA in Ramallah and to the Hamas regime in Gaza?

"For that reason elections are needed and the ballot box is the best means. Why are there no revolutions in Israel even though there are circumstances and reasons? Because its possible to hang a leader in the ballot box and not in the city square."

Are you praising Israeli democracy?

"In Israel there is ethnic democracy: democracy for 80 percent of the public and exclusion and discrimination for 20 percent, and a regime of oppression and dictatorship in the occupied territories. I and my colleagues, my fellow Arab Knesset members, are sitting just a few meters away in the plenum hall from Israelis who have killed members of our people and are imposing a regime of occupation. Will anyone say this testifies to support for their deeds? This is a compromise of ours because we must make our voice heard. We must speak out on every platform and in every arena. I think Israelis shouldn't boast of their democracy as compared to Libya, but rather as compared to Sweden, Norway and France. I want the inhabitants of Taibeh to receive the same treatment as the adjacent Kokhav Yair and not be living as in a Third World country."