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A Jewish-Arab, Anti-occupation Left

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The Joint List's Ayman Odeh reacts next to Ahmad Tibi during a consulting meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, in Jerusalem, on September 22, 2019.
The Joint List's Ayman Odeh reacts next to Ahmad Tibi during a consulting meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, in Jerusalem, on September 22, 2019.Credit: AFP

Two sighs of relief could be heard recently from the Jewish center-left camp in Israel. The first was when Benjamin Netanyahu’s incitement-immunity coalition didn’t win the 61 Knesset seats it needed to remain entrenched in power, and the second was when the Joint List announced that it was recommending that Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz be tasked with forming the next government.

But the very next day, when it became clear that the three Balad members in the list weren’t included in the list of Gantz’s backers, and then when the party boycotted the Knesset swearing-in ceremony to protest the neglect in dealing with violence in the Arab community, the social media posts and opeds began grumbling about how “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” But almost no one stopped to ask what role we play in the complex political reality in which Israel’s Palestinian citizens live, to what extent we influence their Knesset representatives and, even more importantly, on what basis is it possible to establish a true partnership?

It took many years for the left-wing Jewish parties to understand that including the Arab public’s elected representatives in their bloc was vital for democracy. Actually, the right understood long ago that this would be necessary to replace it at the helm. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s not only racism that’s behind the divisive campaigns that the right conducts against the Arabs and their leaders, but a well-thought-out, generally successful strategy to keep them out of the left’s bloc of 61, thus obstructing any chance of ending the occupation and the rule of the right.

The settlers and their ideological partners, who are counting on the occupation continuing, won’t allow the votes of Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi or Aida Touma-Sliman to make decisions about their life’s work. And without them, there is no one who can stop their annexation plots, which will turn Israel into an apartheid state.

This is exactly why those who know, as we do, that the occupation is not just an empty, worn-out concept, but a horrid daily reality that is ruining all our lives, must do all they can to form an alliance based on a true commitment to end it. Lofty words about the importance of protecting Israeli democracy are not enough; after 52 years one can look bravely at reality and see that there is no Israeli democracy, nor can there be, so long as the occupation continues.

The struggle for democracy runs through the struggle against the occupation, and it can exist only by forging a strong partnership with the Arab public. To try to fix what’s broken but to continue to repress what’s happening on the other side of the Green Line is not just hypocrisy, but criminal stupidity.

Today, after a decade of unbridled incitement, one can understand the desire in the ranks of the leftist camp to feel relief over the relative advance in last month’s election, to breathe cleaner air than what we’ve become used to and to allow ourselves to hope that indeed the aggressive moves against the legal and educational system, culture, the gatekeepers and the media have been halted.

But the two parties of the Zionist left don’t have the luxury of neglecting the basic question that lies at the foundation of our existence here. The Jewish-Zionist left must not abandon its primary task of opposing the occupation. It would be tragic if it turns out that the only voices battling the occupation in this Knesset will come from the party that’s easy to isolate.

A look at the MKs of both leftist parties, Labor and the Democratic Union, raises precisely this concern. The first carries the social welfare banner so high that it overshadows the diplomatic issue. There are also members of the Meretz-based Democratic Union quintet who aren’t known to be vehemently anti-occupation.

That’s why this period – in which the Ten Days of Repentance merge with the transition period between the end of the campaign and the riddle of who will form the next government – should be used for a leftist introspection. Not the repulsive self-examination of “the problem with the left” kind, but the kind that focuses on formulating and reinforcing agreements that will facilitate a Jewish-Arab partnership and opposition to the occupation.

The heads of the Joint List have already taken the first step, whose historic importance is hard to underestimate. Recommending the chief of general staff of Operation Protective Edge and his colleagues in the cockpit – two other retired generals and the “Zoabis” boycotter, Yair Lapid – was a lot to swallow, but they did it. During the April election, it was the Arab population that saved Meretz, and in the last one its voter turnout dramatically increased and saved Benny Gantz. In seeking a partner, the Arab representatives have extended their hand three times. Now it’s our turn.

Avner Gvaryahu is the director of Breaking the Silence.