Opinion |

How Turkey and Israel Are Ramping Up Pressure on Their Minorities, and Their Politicians

The HDP in Turkey and the Joint List in Israel crafted an unprecedented political renaissance for their countries’ Kurdish and Arab minorities. But now Erdogan and Netanyahu must invalidate them to stay in power

Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman
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Supporters of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) face off police officers as they gather to support Bogazici University students in Istanbul, Turkey last month
Supporters of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) face off police officers as they gather to support Bogazici University students in Istanbul, Turkey last month.Credit: UMIT BEKTAS/ REUTERS
Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman

Once again Israel is heading to an election, and once again the Central Elections Committee banned an Arab from taking part.

Ibtisam Mara’ana won her appeal against the ban in the Supreme Court, which ruled 8-1 that she did not call for the destruction of the state, a stance that would have disqualified her candidacy.

It was the far-right, racist Otzma Yehudit party that referred Ma’arana to the elections committee, but antagonism towards her in the media and online has been politically ecumenical, and not limited to the normal right-wing voices. This is ironic since Mara’ana is actually part of the Zionist Labor party and not the Arab-based Joint List, the usual target of such attacks.

At the same time as Mara’ana’s case, a senior official from Turkey’s ruling AKP party ramped up already high-octane pressure on the mostly Kurdish opposition party, the HDP, calling for it to be banned altogether, alleging ties to the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).

How similar are the obstacles facing political representatives of Israel’s Arab minority and Turkey’s Kurdish minority? How alike are the playbooks of long-time leaders Benjamin Netanyahu and Recep Tayyip Erdogan towards minority citizens? And what strategies can Arab and Kurdish politicians adopt in the face of both government and grassroots hostility?

Protest against the spike in violence in the Arab community last month, Umm al-Fahm. Credit: rami shllush

The protests against Mara’ana show us once again that most Israeli Jews have yet to come to terms with the fact that much of the state’s substantial ethnic minority – Arab citizens – cannot identify with its Jewish symbols and an Israeli nationalism that stands juxtaposed to their own identity.

Indeed, one of Mara’ana’s "crimes" was refusing to stand during the siren marking Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, an offense that sparked off a wall of anger among Israeli Jews on both right and left. They seemed less interested in asking what it might be like for them to observe a minute’s silence for Palestinians killed in wars with Israel, or being forced to commemorate the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homeland.

Just as Israelis are debating Mara’ana’s right to run, and venting on other Arab politicians for their biting criticism of Israeli policies, Turkey’s parliament is taking steps to remove the parliamentary immunity of nine members of the mostly Kurdish HDP, a precursor to likely trials and imprisonment.

In jail, they’d be joining a whole swathe of HDP elected officials serving time for terror-related convictions, including the party’s influential leader, Selahattin Demirtas, locked up since 2016, despite a ruling by the European Human Rights Court calling for his release on the grounds that his pre-trial detention was "cover for an ulterior political purpose": the quashing of freedom of speech, and noting it saw no evidence linking Demirtas with the terrorism offenses which which he is charged.

There are numerous points of comparison between the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Kurds of Turkey.

Both are ethnic minorities making up about 20 percent of their respective state’s population. Both communities suffer systemic inequality, and often antagonism, in resource allocation, policing and relations with central government. Most importantly, neither are officially recognized as national minorities.

Israel’s Jewish Nation State Law confined national self-determination solely to the Jewish people, downgraded Arabic from being an official language of the state.The Turkish constitution defines its citizens as "Turks," ignoring the existence of Kurds as a people and creating a hierarchy in citizenship. The flip side of this is that in Turkey, some Kurds who stay clear of the "ethnic politics" have reached the high echelons of the ruling AKP government, until now unheard of in Israel.

Israelis can argue that unlike in Turkey, the Arab opposition is not routinely jailed – but in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, members of the Palestinian Authority’s Legislative Council, such as Khalida Jarrar, can be swept away, detained for years without trial and then sentenced to prison by an Israeli military court for "holding a position in an illegal organization."

In fact, the human rights violations of Palestinians in the West Bank are often more comparable to Turkey’s treatment of the Kurdish civilian population in its heartland southeastern regions, despite the clear difference that Kurds are full citizens of the state.

The comparisons between the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Kurds of Turkey, however, is most evident in each countries’ political sphere, where the two minorities have succeeded in creating political lists that not only appeal to their minority base, but also build leverage with the mainstream opposition, who desperately need their support to effectively challenge Netanyahu and Erdogan’s political hegemony.

A woman holds a flag with an image of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a local congress of the ruling AK Party in Istanbul, Turkey last month.Credit: MURAD SEZER/ REUTERS

It was the election threshold that led the two communities in both countries to embark on transformative citizen-based politics.

In Turkey, in 2012, the nation’s Kurds formed the Peoples’ Democratic Party, the HDP, which adopted a progressive agenda including gender equality and welcoming LGBT activists (despite conservative Muslims making up a part of their base).

The strategy also fared well with Turkish leftists who did not find a home in the secular mainstream CHP opposition party, giving the HDP enough votes to cross the 10 percent threshold in the last three national elections, with their MPs coming from not only from Kurdish backgrounds, but also ethnic Turks and others from Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities.

In Israel, the Palestinian citizens of the state were faced with a new reality in 2014, when the vote threshold to get into the Knesset was raised from 2 percent to 3.5 percent, a move aimed at preventing the small Arab-based parties from winning Knesset representation.

Sami Abu Shehadeh, Ayman Odeh and Ahmed Tibi pose for a group picture at the launch of the Joint List election campaign last month in Nazareth, Israel's largest Arab city.Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI - AFP

The tactic backfired: in response, the Joint List was formed, bringing together those small parties – the Jewish-Arab Hadash, the Palestinian nationalist Balad party, the Islamist Ra’am, and Ta’al, the party of the influential parliamentarian Ahmad Tibi – in one electoral bloc.

In 2015, the Joint List swept to13 seats and has out-performed expectations in every election since, despite the challenges of navigating between very different constituent parties. Like the HDP, the Joint List also has a small but stable Jewish base and has a Jewish MK as well.

However, Turkey’s leftist movements have a long history of radical politics, landing many in prison during the 1980s following the coup d'état, where unlike in Israel, the leftist Meretz has remained within the mainstream Zionist consensus, even if providing a voice against injustices against Palestinians and the occupation.

The similarities between the parties and the efforts to delegitimize both them and their main constituencies has been recognized by the heads of both Israel’s Joint List and Turkey’s HDP themselves. In 2015, the Joint List’s Ayman Odeh and the HDP’s Selahattin Demirtas met in Washington D.C.

The mainstream Turkish and Israeli media tend to ignore that both leaders were key in reaching out to progressive voices beyond their minority base, referring to them solely as the "Kurdish" and "Arab" parties. In parallel to this, the media in both countries is also obsessed with arguing that neither the HDP and the Joint List represent their ethnic minority constituencies, but are in fact outliers/extremists/terrorists/hypernationalists/seperatists, even in light of their continued success at the polls.

Despite both the HDP and the Joint List winning substantial victories at the polls, the main opposition parties – the Turkish CHP and the Israeli center-left – have been slow and reluctant to admit that without their support, there is no chance of a wide coalition that can outdo Erdogan’s AKP (itself in coalition with the far-right MHP party) and Netanyahu’s persistence and political maneuvering.

In Turkey, coalition building with the nation’s Kurds is one of the safest, and perhaps the only, path for the opposition to out do Erdogan. That recognition has slowly filtered through the CHP, but only after it backed the government’s 2016 effort to lift parliamentary immunity, which landed the HDP’s Demirtas and others in prison.

An anti-AKP ticket must mean the opposition CHP opening their arms to HDP voters, as it did for the mayoral elections in Istanbul and Ankara – and won both. That anti-AKP coalition would also require the votes of the right-wing Iyi Party, and smaller fringe parties, which exponentially complicates the balancing act. The same anti-Erdogan coalition should be expected for the 2023 elections for the presidency and parliament – or before, if early elections are called.

A supporter of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) holds a mask of their jailed former leader Selahattin Demirtas during a rally in Ankara, Turkey.Credit: UMIT BEKTAS/ REUTERS

In Israel, the center-left’s inability to cooperate with the Joint List was one of the main reasons the anti-Netanyahu camp failed to form a government after the last elections. The Joint List had made the brave decision to provide an external safety jacket for a Kachol Lavan-led coalition: it would support a government established by leader Benny Gantz without being a formal member of the coalition.

The votes were there to end the Netanyahu era – but Gantz preferred joining a coalition with Netanyahu over accepting Arab support. Until today, Gantz’s former partner and head of another and now far more significant opposition party, Yair Lapid, attacks Gantz for not seizing that opportunity and expressing his own readiness to seek the Joint List’s support in the future.

In three weeks, Israel goes to the polls again, but the Joint List may have lost its potential kingmaker role. The anti-Netanyahu calculus has been remixed thanks to a new opposition party from the right. There are also ominous cracks in the Joint List itself.

Netanyahu managed to pursuade one of its factions, the Islamist Ra’am party, to secede; its leader, Mansour Abbas, now publicly cosies up to the prime minister.

If that was not enough, senior figure Ahmad Tibi angered some Joint List’s supporters – and tarnished its ‘progressive’ image – when he recently slammed the LGBT community in an attempt to hold on to Islamist voters. Even if this was just for show, Tibi’s words won’t silence the voices of those Joint List MKs and activists who recognize the core value of equality and LGBT visibility within their own ranks.

'There’s no bigger inciter against the Arab public than Netanyahu. A cup of coffee won't erase that'Credit: Joint List campaign ad

While the opposition parties bicker among themselves, Erdogan and Netanyahu rub their hands in delight.

Their constant delegitimating of the HDP in Turkey and the Joint List in Israel respectively radiates hostility to the minority-led parties to the public at large. It is thus incumbent on anyone who actually supports democracy to speak out about the legitimacy of these parties and recognize the crucial role they play in providing a bridge between minorities and the majority, and to understanding the source of ethnic conflict.

One can only hope that in the future the Joint List transforms into something more organic, like the HDP, replacing what often looks more like a marriage of convenience between disparate, if not contradictory, political streams, a party that also challenges Israel to make good on its promises to be a fair and representative democracy, as the HDP does in Turkey.

Until then, the Joint List represents one of the most dynamic challenges to Israel’s majoritarian status quo, providing not only an address for Israel’s Arab citizens but also those of its Jewish citizens who stand in solidarity with the Arab minority, and recognize its potential to innovate a new politics valuing citizenship over a hegemonic Israeli nationalism that serves its Jewish majority alone.

As Ayman Odeh declared in Foreign Policy back in 2015, "We want to be Arab and democratic Jews together against racism and discrimination. Our struggle is, at the end of the day, a struggle for all the citizens of Israel, because it’s a struggle for democracy."

Louis Fishman is an associate professor at Brooklyn College who divides his time between Turkey, the U.S. and Israel, and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. His latest book is "Jewish and Palestinians in the Late Ottoman Era 1908-1914." Twitter: @Istanbultelaviv



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