Israeli Arab Leaders Divided Over Their Participation in anti-Netanyahu Protest

Any struggle that doesn't include the entire Israeli Arab community is destined to fail, they say

Supporters of Israeli opposition parties attending a rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, May 25, 2019.
Jack Guez / AFP

Hadash Chairman Ayman Odeh’s speech at Saturday night’s “pro-democracy” rally in Tel Aviv won applause from the audience, but within the Hadash-Ta’al joint ticket of Arab parties, opinions were divided over whether the organizers deserved his presence.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Tel Aviv Saturday for a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to pass legislation that would curb the Supreme Court’s powers.

>> Read more: The one good thing to come out of the pro-democracy rally in Tel Aviv | Analysis ■ It's time to take to the streets | Haaretz Editorial

Aside from Odeh, MK Ofer Cassif was the only Hadash-Ta’al Knesset member who attended. Cassif is Jewish; most Arab MKs stayed away because they weren’t invited.

Odeh, who declined to comment for this article, was invited to speak by Benny Gantz, the head of the largest opposition party, Kahol Lavan. But as Haaretz reported last Thursday, after Odeh accepted the invitation, he was told the speakers’ list was already closed. That sparked criticism on the left, and ultimately Odeh was added to the list.

Throughout the weekend, however, a debate raged in Hadash party institutions over whether Odeh should participate. Many Hadash members criticized the organizers for inviting Odeh specifically rather than the Hadash-Ta’al ticket. They were also upset that the other Arab ticket, United Arab List-Balad, wasn’t invited at all.

A senior Hadash official told Haaretz that at any event aimed at defending democracy, Arabs should be involved “not just at the level of a single Arab speaker, but also in the preparations and the talking points.”

The fact that only Odeh was invited, while other Arab MKs were ignored, was also unacceptable, he said. “How is it possible to talk about partnership in the true sense without involving United Arab List or Balad?”

Since Hadash-Ta’al has the same number of Knesset seats as the Labor Party and more than Meretz, “the attitude toward us should be different,” he added.

MK Yousef Jabareen (Hadash-Ta’al) agreed.

“On the substantive level, partnership between Jews and Arabs didn’t really happen at the demonstration, which is too bad,” he said. “A substantive partnership would have required us to be an integral part of the decision-makers and the preparations for the protest, not just guests for whom the organizers are doing a favor. Given the absence of a true partnership, I didn’t attend the demonstration.”

Nevertheless, he added, “The opposition started on the left foot, but in a way that can still be fixed as the struggle continues if there’s a desire to truly integrate the Arab community.”

On Saturday afternoon, senior Hadash officials were still assailing the protest's organizers. MK Aida Touma-Sliman even issued a press statement saying, “Anyone presuming to defend democracy cannot a priori exclude one-fifth of the country’s citizens, the chief victims of the destruction of the democratic space. Gantz, who said repeatedly that he wouldn’t sit with the Arab parties [in a government], is now avoiding being on the same stage with Arab citizens and allowing their voices to be heard.”

Some MKs were thus surprised when Odeh’s office announced that he would attend and speak at the demonstration even as the negotiations were still going on.

Touma-Sliman, like Jabareen, ultimately didn’t go, but she said the demonstration represented progress in cooperation among the opposition parties.

“Finally, the other shoe dropped – that any struggle that excludes an entire community is destined to fail,” she said. “Still, the opposition’s true test isn’t just giving a platform to a representative of the Arab community, but a willingness to involve this community in establishing and building the platform and sharpening its messages.”

Ideological divides won’t go away, she admitted. “We aren’t naive, and we don’t see the wartime generals who boast of their security achievements as loyal partners on our path,” she said. “But as representatives of the community most vulnerable to the destruction of the democratic space and the rule of the settler right, we’ll mobilize the little we have in common to achieve specific goals.”

Cassif, however, did attend, despite having publicly assailed the organizers on Thursday. “The battle against Netanyahu’s attempts to shore up his government and create a blatant dictatorship is an important one, and we’ll be part of it and cooperate with anyone who takes part in it, without abandoning our criticism and principles,” he said.

No Ta’al MKs attended, though party chief Ahmad Tibi said he supported doing so.

“It’s good that Kahol Lavan finally came to its senses,” he said. “We in the Hadash-Ta’al ticket cooperate in the Knesset with all the opposition parties on issues we agree on, and there’s no reason not to work together in the streets on these issues. I hope Kahol Lavan will also be understanding of the issues important to us, like the war on crime as well as planning and construction.”

Asked why, in that case, he didn’t attend the demonstration, he said he and MK Osama Saadi had promised to attend an iftar dinner that night and couldn’t cancel. “We promised this after they announced there would be no Arab speaker,” he said. “Only on Saturday at 4 P.M. did the organizers come to their senses, and that was too late.”

MKs in United Arab List-Balad said they didn’t come because they weren’t invited. Still, there were clear differences between United Arab List chief  Mansour Abbas and Balad Chairman Mtanes Shehadeh.

“In a struggle between democracy and dictatorship and between corruption and integrity and ethics, we’ll certainly fight for the principles of democracy and ethics,” Abbas said. “Arab society can’t sit on the fence and watch this battle without taking part in it. In the end, the Arabs will be the principal victims of a slide into corrupt dictatorship.”

But Shehadeh assailed Odeh for participating. “The slogan ‘a defensive shield for democracy’ rests on Israel’s military and security worldview, and crimes against the Palestinian people have been committed under this title,” he said. “How can an Arab leader agree to be present at a rally with messages and a name like that? Does the desire for dialogue with Israeli society outweigh every other consideration?”