'Chaos and Violence Loom': Israeli-Arab Lawmaker's Vision of Coexistence Turns Into Dark Prophecy

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Former Knesset Member Zouheir Bahloul
Former Knesset Member Zouheir Bahloul. 'There is no intelligent Arab Israeli of my generation who preaches coexistence more than I do.' Credit: Rami Shllush
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

“When my eldest child entered first grade, my late wife and I decided, after deliberation, to send her to a Jewish school,” says Zionist Union MK Zouheir Bahloul, who this week announced his resignation from the Knesset in protest of the passage of the Jewish nation-state law. “The reasons were that we wanted excellence, and Arab schools get half the budget of Jewish schools. And because in this way we would help her integrate into Israeli society, we would make it possible for her to flirt with the [Hebrew] language and culture.

“It wasn’t easy,” he continues. “At the end of 12 years, we received an outstanding student, who is now doing a doctorate on the perception of the Holocaust in the Arab media. When our second child arrived, we sent him immediately to an Arab school, without hesitation. We realized that it had been too much for us, that it had been too great a sacrifice.”

What kind of sacrifice?

“The struggle between identities. Now it’s the same story with me. I joined the Labor Party, and if you ask me whether I would do it again, my answer would probably be negative.”

For several months, Bahloul, 67, a veteran journalist and popular sports broadcaster, and a father of three who has just become a first-time grandfather, had hinted that his short political career was nearing its end. Given his revulsion at the nationalist parliament, his isolation in Zionist Union and his poor relations with Avi Gabbay, head of the dominant Labor faction in that party – it was clear that he was under pressure.

We meet in his home in a modest apartment complex opposite the Mediterranean in Acre. “When I moved here, 95 percent of the families were Jewish,” he notes. “Today it’s exactly the opposite – when the Arabs come in, the Jews flee.”

Bahloul doesn’t deny that he would not have run for another term in the Knesset in any case, but he insists that if it weren’t for the nation-state law, he would have completed his term, which began in 2015.

“The law was passed in the early hours of the morning, and then I went abroad with a friend, and it was there that I arrived at the decision to leave,” he tells me. “Clearly it’s the result of a process. It wasn’t out of the blue.”

What was the breaking point?

“The Knesset has become a rubber-stamp body. Even though my colleagues are trying to persuade themselves otherwise, being an opposition MK has become meaningless. All they can do is talk. [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu and his friends are passing, on almost a weekly or biweekly basis, horrific decisions and laws, such as the law to remove an MK, the ‘Breaking the Silence’ law and the land-expropriation law, and now comes this legislation, the nation-state law, which is the height of that process.”

Former Knesset Member Zouheir Bahloul talks to people at the Acre market. Credit: rami shllush

That law has been under discussion for years, it’s not new.

“It made the rounds of the Knesset for eight-nine years, and no one dared enact it. Suddenly it’s brought out, roughly, cruelly and insensitively. I didn’t believe it would pass, but it did. The point of departure itself is problematic: Calling Israel ‘democratic and Jewish’ is absurd and paradoxical. But I didn’t see the Arab public in the country – which, by the way, is one of the most disciplined minorities on Earth – taking to the barricades because of that paradoxical definition. They are manning the barricades, and will continue to do so, in the wake of all the laws that deny their national self-determination and do them civic harm.”

What disturbs you most about the law?

“The issue of Arabic is the most clear-cut and most dangerous example. The moment they deprive the language of its official status, our national status is harmed. The moment you’re told publicly that under a Basic Law – not just a regular law – your language is not an official language, [it means that] they don’t want to recognize your national status and don’t want to recognize your citizenship. Because when my language is encroached upon, my identity and my citizenship are as well. It’s too much already. Even if I could live with a ‘Jewish and democratic’ state, albeit with a great deal of anguish, this is something I can’t live with. What will I tell my grandson in another 10 years, when he asks me where I was on the day the law was passed, where was I on the day they sold out the Arab minority? How will I account for my actions to him? So I don’t want to be in this Knesset, I don’t want to go to the private estate of Benjamin Netanyahu, of [Education Minister] Naftali Bennett and [MK] Bezalel Smotrich and of [Justice Minister] Ayelet Shaked [all three from Habayit Hayehudi].”

'It turns out that I was living under an illusion and that my optimism did not correspond with the dramatic changes that are occurring in Israeli society.'

But what about the situation before this Knesset? If we go back to the beginning of the state, we discover that until 1966 the country’s Arab citizens were subject to military government, something that wasn’t instituted by Netanyahu but by Mapai, the forerunner of Labor.

“It was never a paradise here for the Arabs. We always trod a Via Dolorosa. There was also Land Day in 1976, and the first and second intifadas, in which we paid a price in blood – 13 of our finest sons fell. The situation was never what it should be but, you know, the tone makes the music. Despite everything, there was a sense of shame in the Knesset, and caution.”

Maybe that was only for sake of appearances?

“Historic Mapai deceived the Arabs, and people aren’t stupid. They know it’s impossible to make do with fake smiles, and I am perhaps the best example of that. I came to this party and sacrificed a fascinating and valuable career, and I gave them a treasure trove in the form of a person with a record and credibility among his audience. But instead of being embraced, I felt like an outsider and I had to vote alone in many cases, without the sympathy or empathy of the party, which is supposed to care for minorities.”

But the party voted with you against the nation-state law.

“Correct. The nation-state law is the straw that broke the camel’s back. But the party is a different subject, which exists in its own right and needs to be dealt with. We need to examine whether it’s truly feasible for the Labor Party to integrate Arabs who take pride in their Arabness, or whether it can accept only Arab functionaries based on the model of the 1950s and ‘60s.”

Labor leader Avi Gabbay.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

‘Mess of pottage’

Almost paradoxically, though not unusually for the Israeli left, the most caustic comments about Bahloul’s resignation from the Knesset due to the passage of the nation-state law, emanated from colleagues in the party, who claim that he was on his way out anyway, and the left-wing camp in general. “The media fell for it,” was the reaction in the milieu of Avi Gabbay, whose laconic tweet (saying only that he “respected” his colleague’s decision) in the wake of Bahloul’s announcement revealed something of the poor relations between them.

“Zouheir did a dreamy private exit from the nation-state law,” a colleague from the Arab Joint List party remarked sarcastically.

Bahloul is stung by such comments. “They are groundless and wicked allegations,” he says. “To debase such a moral position is simply malicious. The nation-state law was the factor and the reason. Period. I pity the people who said all that.”

Bahloul’s entry into Zionist Union was peculiar from the outset. He had never voted for Labor in the past – “Let’s say I voted for other parties” – and apparently has no intention of doing so in the future. “I will support any genuine Jewish-Arab partnership,” he declares.

According to a source in the Joint List, Bahloul dispatched emissaries before the last election to feel out the possibility of joining that party. Bahloul, though, says the Joint List courted him, and explains his decision to join a Jewish party in this way: “I put myself into an exceptional position. I didn’t do the usual thing and join an Arab party, I went to an Israeli [Jewish] party. I made a very important, moral, strategic decision, of the ‘practice what you preach’ school: I want a life of coexistence, and therefore I would go to a party of that kind.”

Bahloul joined Labor at the initiative of its leader at the time, Isaac Herzog, and in the January 2015 primary scored an impressive victory over former minister Raleb Majadele, who has deep roots in the party. Bahloul was given the 17th place on the Labor slate, which is reserved for an Israeli Arab representative. Most of the votes he garnered in the primary came from Jews. Shortly afterward, he was informed of the faction’s new name – Zionist Union – following its merger with MK Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party. At a Haaretz conference held a few days after the new name was revealed, at which Bahloul was a speaker, I asked him what he thought about the name. “I’m not a Zionist, okay?” he replied sadly and edgily. Now, he says, “The name disgusted me, but I had to accept it submissively, because it was a done deal.”

Bahloul discovered immediately that he was an alien presence in the party. “One time we went to Kibbutz Ein Gedi for social networking. For 48 hours we held discussions, and while the talk flowed they forgot that an Arab was present and started to invoke the language of nationalism and Judaism. They kept repeating, like a mantra, ‘the state of the Jewish people.’ As though there are no Arabs. No Palestinians. So who am I? What am I? What am I doing in these rooms, in these halls?”

'Now, if a continuing effort is made to push us Arabs into a corner, we will be close – heaven forbid – to a confrontation between Arabs and Jews.'

Bahloul often voted contrary to the party’s position: for example, to dismantle the National Institutions – including the Jewish National Fund and the World Zionist Organization – and against stiffening the punishment for stone throwers. He is also one of the sponsors – together with the Arab MKs and MKs Dov Khenin (Joint List) and Mossi Raz (Meretz) – of a bill that would counter the nation-state law. Their bill, entitled the Basic Law on a Democratic, Multicultural and Egalitarian State, aims to reinforce democratic values. It was immediately removed from the Knesset agenda.

The members of Zionist Union’s hawkish wing had a hard time with Bahloul. “I am very fond of him personally,” says MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, who found herself clashing with him in the media on various issues, “but it was hard for me to see that he found it difficult to be a true bridge between Jews and Arabs.” An opposing view is taken by MK Ksenia Svetlova, affiliated with the left wing of Zionist Union. “If the Zionist Union faction can’t accommodate Zouheir Bahloul, who can it accommodate?” she asks.

Bahloul got into two major confrontations with most of the rest of his party. In April 2016, he asserted that the person who stabbed a soldier in Hebron was not a terrorist but a Palestinian freedom fighter. That statement sparked condemnations in the media from fellow Zionist Union MKs. (“I heard him on the radio and pinched myself to make sure I was actually hearing that from someone in my party,” one MK relates.)

The second instance was Bahloul’s announcement that he would boycott a festive Knesset session marking the centenary of the 1917 Balfour Declaration. That sparked a rift with the then-newly elected party leader, Gabbay, who said that he was “fed up with extremism” and let it be known that Bahloul would not be wanted in the next Knesset. The tension between the two abated somewhat after they met to clarify matters, and Gabbay even attended an event that Bahloul organized during Ramadan this year in a village outside Acre, and addressed the participants.

But this week, following Bahloul’s resignation, Gabbay’s close circle was again irate, not least because the party leader heard about the move via the media. “We would have expected a minimum of respect – call the chairman and inform him, even send an SMS. Nothing. He resigned and that was it,” said a source close to Gabbay.

The feeling in Gabbay’s circle, according to the same source, is that Bahloul “didn’t do a thing in the Knesset. He didn’t bring one Arab to the Labor Party. He doesn’t represent the Arabs, and he irks the Jews. We had marvelous momentum with the nation-state law – everyone agreed with us with respect to the Druze and we also paid lip service to the Arabs. Along comes Zouheir Bahloul and says that ‘the nation-state law is me’ and throws it all into the garbage. Because, after all his comments, the Jewish public thinks that if Zouheir is against, I will be in favor.”

“Those are baseless, ungrounded allegations,” Bahloul says in response. “They reveal the nullity of the arguments of those who are against the integration of an intelligent Arab into the Labor Party. They want a political functionary, but they won’t find people like that any longer. What’s worrisome is their reactionary worldview. They still live with the feeling that you can satisfy the Arabs with a mess of pottage.”

What’s your opinion of Gabbay as a person, as a leader?

“I don’t think I have the authority to talk about a person who is trying to create something amid a complex political situation. The struggle against Netanyahu is almost pointless. I don’t want to discourage anyone, but the feeling is that whoever will be in the top spot will be fighting an almost hopeless battle. What really ticked me off about Gabbay is the fact that at the start, he veered rightward, thinking he could be an improved and upgraded Netanyahu.... And by the way, this zigzag, in which a little later he moved a bit more to the center and a bit more to the left, reduces his chances of being a successful chairman who can lead the Israeli left. I think he took over the position too quickly. They didn’t get to know him well enough.”

The confrontation with you was part of that?

“Yes, of course.”

But you yourself supported him in the second round of the leadership election.

“Yes. My view was that it was no longer possible to rely on archaic figures in Labor. Someone new who could generate passion was needed.”

There are people in Labor who say that you are more closely connected to your Palestinian identity than to your Israeli identity.

“In order to balance the fact that we are ignored, that attempts are made to exclude us, that our rights are ignored – I have to stress the other side, and that creates the feeling that I am more a Palestinian than an Israeli. But there is no intelligent Arab Israeli of my generation who preaches coexistence more than I do. No such person exists.”

If you were offered the chance to join the Joint List, would you accept?

“I said that I am done with the Knesset, and I stand behind that.”

What are your relations with the members of the Joint List?

“At first they kept checking me all the time, to see how I voted and what I did. When I was a journalist they all gave me interviews and there was always respect, but then I appeared under the very difficult rubric of Zionist Union. They understood in no time that I hadn’t become a Zionist and hadn’t become a Jew. I said that if I weren’t in the Labor Party, I would vote for the Joint List. It’s a party that embodied the dream of the Arab in Israel. There are also very intelligent people in the party, of the highest caliber in the Knesset. But the public is somewhat disappointed in them, because of their intrigues and difficult internal relations.”

Arab Knesset members protesting the decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem during Vice President Mike Pence's visit. Their protest got them evicted from the House.Credit: Emil Salman

What did you feel when they were evicted from the Knesset session during the speech of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, when they held up posters protesting the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem?

“On the one hand, I was ashamed that I stayed on and didn’t leave with them; on the other hand, I know that it’s wrong to burn all the bridges. I also tried to be more statesmanlike for the sake of legitimization. I believe a new dialogue needs to be forged with the Jewish public, because this government is not the be-all and end-all. I’ve received quite a few messages from the Jewish public in the past few days, and that’s heartwarming. There are still circles in that public with whom a straightforward dialogue can be conducted, with attentiveness to the rights of the Arab minority.”

And is that something, say, that the members of the Joint List aren’t doing? Are they squandering this opportunity, do you think?

“Yes. The entirely militant, exclusively national dialogue misses the target. It’s preferable to find some other blend of new dialogue with the Israeli [Jewish] public.”

Yet you have tried to be moderate and statesmanlike your whole life, and in the end, by your account, a Jewish party rejected you like a foreign body. What’s your conclusion?

“The conclusion is that politics is tough, almost impossible. But outside politics there are definitely segments of the public in Israel to do business with.”

Approaching earthquake

Even those who claim that Bahloul’s resignation was self-serving will detect in his words a genuine fear for the future and despair over the possibility of coexistence.

“Since Operation Protective Edge [in the Gaza Strip in 2014], I have gone from being very optimistic to being very pessimistic,” he says. “I thought I could still change things, share in the creation of a new chapter – that it was possible to redefine the relations. It turns out that I was living under an illusion and that my optimism did not correspond with the dramatic changes that are occurring in Israeli society.”

'If we got through 1948, we will get through all the rest. And we will never leave.'

Bahloul says he can feel the tectonic shift in Israeli Arab society, presaging an earthquake. “In our generation,” he says, “which was born into the state, we sometimes tried to cut corners, to get along, to accept the fiats submissively and so forth. But the young generation will not accept all that, and this at a time when the Knesset is floating laws in the air left and right, and Allah yustur – God help us. All these things will have painful ramifications. They really have gone too far.”

Possibly there is also radicalization among the Arabs?

“I tell you that the opposite process was underway. The State of Israel missed a golden opportunity. More than golden – platinum. Since 2010, when the Arabs in Israel discovered that the Arab world was an unreliable source of support, there was actually a tendency to integrate into the Israeli society. People said, ‘We have no choice, we have to become part of the life of the country.’ There was an instinctive thrust to try to be accepted to more places of employment, to try to claim civic rights and civic equality, instead of the former exclusively nationalist approach.

“Young people had hopes of being integrated, but they were cold-shouldered by the state. Now, if a continuing effort is made to push us Arabs into a corner, we will be close – heaven forbid – to a confrontation between Arabs and Jews. And now it’s not a small minority: The Arabs constitute 22 percent of the country.”

What will a confrontation like that look like?

“The Arab MKs will resign. The heads of the Arab local councils will go the headquarters of the Union of Local Authorities in Tel Aviv and give back the keys, and a civil revolt will gradually develop. I pray and hope that I am wrong, but there will be chaos and violence here. I heard that my resignation was reported on the BBC. Do you realize what will happen if all the Arab MKs resign?”

Do you think all the Arab MKs should resign because of the passage of the nation-state law?

“I don’t tell them what to do.”

Could it be that your resignation is the most significant thing you’ve actually done in the Knesset?

Bahloul laughs. “No, no. I did things, I forged a dialogue. When I spoke, everyone listened, no one left.”

What kind of life do you foresee for your young grandson? Would you want him to live somewhere else?

“I’ll tell you something sad. If I could relive my life, I would consider not living here for a few years. It’s impossible to live with this poison for all time. But I would leave only for a few years, and then come back. Because we will never leave. If we got through 1948, we will get through all the rest. And we will never leave.”

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