Where Are They Now? Sky’s the Limit for Arab MK-turned-pilot

The 53 members of Knesset who are out of a job might look up, way up to Tawfik Khatib for inspiration. After leaving parliament, the former MK from the United Arab List found a new vocation: flying.

Leora Eren Frucht
Leora Eren Frucht
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Leora Eren Frucht
Leora Eren Frucht

Tawfik Khatib smiles as he climbs into the cockpit of a small Cessna, oblivious to the whirr of nearby helicopters and roar of plane engines around him. These days, Khatib, 58, prefers the hum of this small airport near Herzliya to the shouts and insults that were the soundtrack of his previous work milieu – the Knesset.

“Flying for me symbolizes freedom,” says the former member of Knesset for Ra’am (United Arab List), who is now a commercial pilot and flight instructor.

It’s not an obvious path for a middle-aged Islamic Movement activist who only boarded an airplane for the first time when he was 35. But after two terms in the Knesset – from 1996 to 2003 – Khatib says he felt, well, grounded.

“I’d exhausted public life and wanted a new career,” explains the trim, bearded father of five from Jaljulya, a village of 9,000 Muslim Arabs, located near Kfar Sava.

Khatib started his professional life as a bank clerk and quickly rose to become a bank supervisor (at Bank Leumi) before being elected head of the local council of his home town in 1989. Then, in the heady '90s, in what he calls “the hopeful days of the Rabin era,” Khatib felt the urge to have a greater impact at the national level and ran for Knesset on the United Arab List slate. The party (now called United Arab List-Ta'al) is affiliated with the southern faction of the local Islamic movement (considered more moderate than the northern branch which opposes fielding candidates in the Knesset.)

“I thought I would have much more influence in the Knesset, but I learned that the only way you can have an impact is if your party is one of the crucial ones needed to keep the coalition intact," he says.

Khatib’s parliamentary career lasted two terms, a move, he says, that was deliberate. "In United Arab List we had an agreement that no one serves more than two consecutive terms, in order to give others a chance,” Khatib explains. But he says he wouldn’t have wanted a third term anyway. “Being an MK was not a challenge like being a local council head was. Parliament was more about talk, whereas being a council head involved action – you were really able to move things.

“What I most wanted to achieve as an MK was to bring about a change in attitude toward the Arab sector. If I had been able to do that, it would have been worth everything to me,” says Khatib, who in 2000 took part in the March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau. “But I saw that the leadership on both sides of the political spectrum related to the Arabs of Israel in the same way. They refer to us as ‘the problem of Israeli Arabs.’ Why are we a problem? That attitude is deeply entrenched,” he says, noting that even the dovish Shimon Peres used the same phrase repeatedly when referring to Israeli Arabs. Khatib, who studied at Bar-Ilan University, waxes lyrically about Zeev Jabotinsky, the Revisionist Zionist leader who wrote that he’d be happy to see an Arab serve as Israel’s deputy prime minister. “That’s not something you’ll hear today,” he says.

The idea of becoming a commercial pilot grew out of Khatib’s newfound love of flying – which he had tried several years earlier on a whim. And he was ready for a change. “At the end of my Knesset term I knew I needed a new profession,” he says.

Until a High Court of Justice petition in 1990 Israeli Arabs had been routinely rejected from private flying schools, but by the time Khatib enrolled in the late '90s that was no longer the case. Ironically, he notes that while in the wake of 9/11 enrolling in flight schools in the United States became more difficult for those of Arab origin, in Israel the field really opened up for Arabs.

Since he qualified to become a commercial pilot, Khatib has been flying small aircraft (up to a 21-seater Jetstream), usually ferrying Israelis to business meetings in neighboring countries like Jordan, Egypt, Greece and Turkey. Six years ago he also became a flight instructor at FNA, a local flight school in Herzliya. (One of his students is his 22-year-old daughter Anfal who, upon completing her studies, will be the first Arab woman in Israel to obtain a pilot license.)

“Flying for me is about overcoming gravity, what holds us down,” says Khatib. “If you can do that you can be free. There is a sense of victory in being up there.”

On the ground, he enjoys back-slapping camaraderie with his fellow pilots, most of them Jewish, greeting one – an Orthodox rabbi– with particular warmth.

Despite his own friendly ties with his neighbors, though, Khatib says he is not hopeful about the future of the country. Once a firm believer in a two-state solution, he is now skeptical. “In the '90s there was hope that things would change, but today it’s much harder. What leader will be able to move 300,000 settlers?” he says, fidgeting with a toy plane on the desk of his airport office.

“No, I don’t see a solution on the horizon. Now the only horizon that gives me hope is this one,” says Khatib, pointing to a poster on the wall showing the skyline as seen from inside a cockpit. “Now I just want to keep looking ahead at that horizon.”

'Flying for me is about overcoming gravity, what holds us down,' says Khatib. 'If you can do that you can be free.'Credit: Daniel Bar-On
One of Khatib's students is his 22-year-old daughter Anfal who, upon completing her studies, will be the first Arab woman in Israel to obtain a pilot license.Credit: Tawfik Khatib
Khatib served as an MK for two terms, between 1996 and 2003.Credit: Knesset website

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