If anyone knows about the vicissitudes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Jewish Israelis' involvement in fighting the occupation (or not), it’s Ahmad Tibi. Currently head of one of the factions in the Joint List party in the Knesset, where he has served since 1999, MK Tibi, the closest adviser of the late Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, is the country's most famous Arab politician.
In an interview with Haaretz, he has sharp criticism of Israel's Labor Party in its various iterations, of the right's role in the demise of the two-state vision and of the "practical apartheid" taking root in Israel.
'Do you know who’s the only one from the right who used the term occupation? Ariel Sharon'
Ahmad, has the fight against the occupation really failed?
“The occupation has gone on for too long, so it can be said that the struggle against it has not succeeded at this moment. The results are obvious. I have no doubt that ultimately the occupation will end, but it has been prolonged because of the small number of those in Israel who reject it.”
Asked about the historical reasons for this situation, the lawmaker replies: “I think that the argument regarding the future of the occupied territories has always been an arrogant intra-Israeli discussion between the right and the so-called left. Now it’s between Likud and the [right-wing] Yamina party, or between Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] and the Yesha [Judea and Samaria] Council of Settlements, or between Israel and the United States.
“In Israel there’s no real left today. Who uses the term ‘occupation’ in the Knesset today? The Joint List. When it comes to Jewish MKs it’s Ofer Cassif [the List’s sole Jewish member] and Tamar Zandberg and Nitzan Horowitz [both of Meretz]. Even Yair Golan, who’s in Meretz, doesn’t say occupation. The Labor Party has never used the word occupation. Neither did [Shimon] Peres or [Yitzhak] Rabin, who at most used the expression ‘ruling over another people.’
'The argument regarding the occupied territories has always been an arrogant intra-Israeli discussion between the right and the so-called left'
“Do you know who’s the only one from the right who used the term occupation? Ariel Sharon when he was prime minister and spoke in the Knesset about evacuation and disengagement. And I recall that a young MK jumped up and told him, surprisingly, that he had no understanding of security issues. Her name is Gila Gamliel. Today she’s a minister in the Israeli government.”
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Tibi has no problem pointing out those who he says are responsible for the failure of the left and the struggle to end the occupation of the Palestinians. “The problem was with the Labor Party,” he continues. “It was in power when the occupation began to be carried out [in 1976]. It started using euphemisms, it taught the value of ‘settlement,’ and therefore it was easy for anyone to the right of the Labor Party to outflank them even more, on the right.
“The historical injustice of the occupation and its continuation is first, second and third the responsibility of generations of the Labor Party. For example, the separation barrier [between Israel and the territories] was the idea of [Laborites] Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Haim Ramon. They forced it on Arik Sharon, who didn’t want it for ideological reasons, and they were proud of it.”
So who do you prefer: the Mapainiks [forerunners of Labor] or today’s right wing?
“I don’t think there’s an answer to that question. I will never distribute certificates of integrity to members of the right or Likud, but I’m telling you that when it comes to the occupation it’s the Labor Party in ‘67, and when it comes to the Nakba [or “catastrophe,” the Arab term for Israel’s War of Independence], it’s the historical Labor movement in 1948. The Labor Party did a good job of speaking to the international community in cloying words dripping with poison.”
In that connection, Tibi recalls the moment when the results of the most recent election, in March, were publicized: “I said what sweet revenge it is that we, the Arabs, received twice as many [votes] as the historical Mapai. I also said as much to [Labor Party leader] Amir Peretz.”
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You blame the Labor Party and exonerate Meretz, which does in fact talk about the occupation, but belongs to institutions such as the Jewish National Fund, for example, whose purpose has been to sell land in this country to Jews only.
“Only the Joint List is not a member of those bodies, because it has a clear-cut position against institutions that sanctify the Jewish-Zionist ego at the expense of the Arabs. [Former Meretz chairman] Zehava (Galon) never said she’s a member of the Joint List.
"I can’t dismiss Meretz or cooperation with them because they have a representative in the JNF. It would be preferable if they didn’t. It would be preferable for all of us to boycott anyone who lends a hand to occupation or expulsion. But that’s not happening. Even the international community doesn’t relate to the Israeli occupation as it did to South African apartheid.”
Do you think that the occupation can end without international pressure?
“Not a chance.”
Are you in favor of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement?
“Israel put out a contract on any struggle that seems violent. Then BDS came along and demonstrated a nonviolent path and that embarrassed Israel and forced it to say that it opposed any type of opposition to the occupation. I’m in favor of a boycott against the occupation, including a boycott against the settlements.”
Why in your opinion has the minority in Israel who rejected the occupation from the start lost among the Israeli public?
“The left in Israel was not an aggressive, determined, uncompromising left. People called the Labor Party ‘left’ because it was against Likud, and this so-called left, called the Labor Party, exterminated and plundered the values of the left. Even now [Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny] Gantz, who isn’t considered left but is thought to be an alternative to Netanyahu – as soon as he became defense minister, sat with the settler leaders in order to see how he could help them.
“Kahol Lavan conducted an election campaign in the settlements. I asked several people in it: ‘Tell me, what is this?’ They said: ‘That’s how to get votes from the right.’ So the ordinary voter prefers the original to the faded copy.”
In a similar vein, he may not admit it but Tibi is actually very fortunate that his name rhymes with “Bibi.” If not, he wouldn’t get so much PR attention from the right, which time after time puts him in the media forefront under the catchy slogan “Bibi or Tibi.”
Rightism and racism
Let’s set aside political frameworks for a moment. Why haven’t anti-occupation activists found inroads to the hearts of the Israelis?
“Because in the shadow of the conflict, the Israeli public is more right than left. People like the late Prof. Zeev Sternhell or Prof. [Yeshayahu] Leibowitz were isolated phenomena – not collective ones. Jews didn’t follow after them or after these values in droves. Racism against Arabs in Israel is seen as something that is sometimes inevitable, that can be explained.”
But racism in Israel, Tibi notes, does not stop with Arabs: “Israeli society today is racist vis-a-vis other societies. Against Ethiopians, against Arabs, against the Haredim [i.e., ultra-Orthodox]. Yesterday, from the Knesset dais, I spoke against the attitude of several police officers toward a 13-year-old Haredi girl [who harassed her for not wearing a mask]. I’m sure those officers wouldn’t have done that to a secular, white Ashkenazi girl, nor to a girl from Dimona.”
A significant proportion of the Jewish population here originated in Arab or North African countries [i.e., are Mizrahim]. How did we miss out on creating ties between them and Israeli Arabs?
“That’s a phenomenon of nature that demands an explanation. It can be explained by going back to the 1950s and to the arrogant and condescending attitude of the Labor Party toward Mizrahi Judaism. Since then this persecution or discrimination complex against the Mizrahim has led them to vote for Likud. I think [alternate premier and Defense Minister] Gantz won’t actually be prime minister. But I favor having Netanyahu’s rule end in another year and a half. Even if he’s replaced by a scarecrow. If it’s Gantz, let it be Gantz.”
On a very personal level, “Arab MKs feel quite comfortable with Moshe Arbel of Shas, for example. He understands the other side more than his counterpart in another party” – however, Tibi adds, “that doesn’t mean that his political views will be similar to ours. Arrogance is an Israeli pathology and it’s a characteristic of the center and the left in Israel.”
Tibi, who castigates the Labor Party mercilessly but is a bit more careful when it comes to Meretz, vehemently refuses to speak of the failures of the Palestinians that have led to the present situation in the country, claiming a lack of symmetry.
“I don’t know of any leadership that doesn’t make mistakes,” he says. “I don’t know of any perfect nations. The Palestinian national movement since its inception has also made mistakes. But there’s nothing more justified than its demands for liberty, freedom and a state.
“Today nobody says that the Algerians were mistaken when they harmed French citizens, but rather that the French were ugly and occupying colonialists and the Algerians were liberated and won their freedom. Fifty years from now, when someone writes a history book, they won’t say that the murder of children in Itamar was terrible [a reference to the 2011 killings of five members of a Jewish family in that settlement] – and that was my opinion of it. They’ll say that the Palestinian people fought and paid a high price and defeated the occupier. Harming civilians and attacks on buses are a mistake. It’s a chapter that would preferably not have happened, politically and morally. It’s natural that historically, the occupier kills civilians, and preferable for the occupied not to do so.
“There will be many Israelis 50 years from now who will feel ashamed when they read in the history books about how they treated the Palestinians from ‘48 until now. If you want [me to offer] self-criticism, then the worst thing is the intra-Palestinian split between Fatah and Hamas. It’s a disgrace, it’s embarrassing. Today most of the Palestinian people rejects this split and want it to end.”
So let’s go forward 50 years. What do you envision, in your ideal scenario?
“The solution is still two states. Meanwhile the Israeli right has managed to kill this vision, and by means of the proposed annexation idea, deepens the occupation and creates practical apartheid.”
Forget the right for the moment. What would you want?
“One state that’s a Palestinian state and a second state that’s an Israeli state. There are Jews who reject the expression ‘an Israeli state’ and want a Jewish state. I can’t agree to that. The expression ‘Jewish and democratic’ is an oxymoron.”
What is an Israeli state?
“A democratic state in which everyone is equal, and in which Jews can vote whatever they want and come to power, not because they’re supposed to rule the country just because they are a Jewish collective, but because they’re a majority that wins elections. That’s how democratic things are decided.”
You’ve repeated that ‘67 is a continuation of ‘48. Why not a state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, one state with “one person – one vote”?
“Advocates of this idea say that it would solve the problems of Jerusalem, the right of return, the settlements and so on. Judging by the present behavior, I have no doubt that Israel would prefer to go to a [right-wing MK Bezalel] Smotrich type of apartheid regime and a fascist right that would be worse than the regime in South Africa – rather than a single state as [Haaretz] journalist Gideon Levy prefers. That’s because Israel gets breaks from the international community that South Africa didn’t get.”
How do you explain the fact, according to you, there is a constant escalation [of anger] among Palestinians and yet there’s no Palestinian uprising?
“In the history of nations it takes time until a people erupt in resistance. The first intifada in ‘87 took place almost 30 years after the establishment of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The people erupted spontaneously: It was not the Palestinian factions that led them or pushed the button.
"I don’t know when the third intifada will take place, but I have no doubt that it will. I don’t know of a single nation that was liberated from occupation because it surrendered to the occupiers. Nations under occupation try a process of negotiation and rapprochement in order to achieve reconciliation, or they fight against the occupation.”
Has rapprochement failed?
“At this point in time rapprochement has failed.”
So what kind of fight against the occupation do you propose?
“I think that wide-scale nonviolent popular resistance has yet to be tried. It should include large demonstrations, closing highways, interfering with the lives of the settlements and the settlers, parallel demonstrations in Europe. In such a case the violent side would be the occupier and not the Palestinians.”
Do the Palestinians living in Israel have guilt feelings toward the Palestinians who fled?
“Fifty years ago the Arab world had a negative attitude toward the Arabs who stayed in Israel. Today it’s the reverse; remaining there is praiseworthy. Most of those who abandoned [their homes] were forced to do so in ‘48 due to the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of villages that were erased, due to a massacre here and there, due to rumors about massacres. It’s impossible to come today with criticism [of them]; you must criticize those who occupied their homeland – but also some of the Arab regimes that throughout history stabbed the Palestinians in the back.”
The Joint List is today the second largest party, according to the polls. Since your establishment you have declared that you won’t be part of the government. What are you achieving by dooming yourselves to perpetual opposition?
“There’s a reason for that, which is the situation of occupation and of a national conflict. But we really want to exert an influence, and the equation that connects ‘we don’t want to be in the government,’ with ‘we do want to exert an influence’ is what’s called a voting bloc. We were willing to support the formation of a government with our votes from outside, in exchange for an agreement that upgrades the status of the Arab community with a political, diplomatic statement.
“We reached understandings with Kahol Lavan, and that obligated us to accept difficult demands. But our public wanted it and pushed us – not out of love for Gantz but because of the desire to bring to an end the rule of a leader who incited against us with extreme harshness. We were close to that objective, but someone else beat us to it.”
You have received proposals several times to start a Jewish-Arab party. There was talk with Zehava Galon after she resigned from Meretz. MK Ayman Odeh, who arrived on the scene long after you, managed to brand himself as a symbol of Arab-Jewish partnership.
“I’m a consistent supporter of the need for cooperation between Jews and Arabs, both on the street and in the Knesset. But I don’t like to spread utopianism, to either the Arab or the Jewish community. Anyone who promises the left such things can’t promise it in the name of the Joint List. I don’t like to be treated like an occasional vote reservoir of the Israeli left. We won’t be the default choice of the left when it fails in an election.
"Anyone who talks about Jewish-Arab cooperation doesn’t throw out [former Meretz MK] Esawi Freige and bring in Yair Golan [a current Meretz MK]. I’m a clear supporter of a shared Jewish-Arab struggle for a shared life based on mutual respect. The burden of proof and closing the gaps falls on the ruling majority, but the interest of the minority is to lend a hand to that. I don’t want to defeat you: I want to defeat racism and exclusion together with you.”
What do you think of Ayman’s Odeh’s leadership?
“The Joint List doesn’t have a leader, we’re not Yisrael Beiteinu. It’s a list of four parties. According to the agreement that established the Joint List, and in reality, there’s a group called ‘The leadership of the Joint List,’ which is composed of the four party leaders. Ayman is the first among equals.”