The Man Who Rescued the Israeli Left

Thanks to MK Issawi Freij, tens of thousands of Arab citizens voted for Meretz, and it passed the electoral threshold

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Meretz lawmakers Tamar Zandberg and Issawi Freij arrive for coalition consultations with President Reuven Rivlin, April 15, 2019.
Meretz lawmakers Tamar Zandberg and Issawi Freij arrive for coalition consultations with President Reuven Rivlin, April 15, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman
Adam Raz
Adam Raz

One thing is clear: Meretz lawmaker Esawi Freige rescued the Zionist left. Without him the party wouldn’t have passed the 3.25-percent electoral threshold. The words of Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg – about surviving “a tsunami of voters for Kahol Lavan” – were honest and accurate. There was a reason that on Election Day she visited Kafr Qasem, the site of a massacre of Arab citizens by the Border Police in 1956. It’s a fact that of the 156,362 voters who voted for the party, nearly 40,000 are Arab citizens – between a quarter and a third.

The percentage of Arabs who voted for Meretz in the 2019 election was significantly higher than in the 2015 election. In 2015, Meretz received about 12,000 votes in the Arab communities, and about another 2,000 to 3,000 in the mixed Arab-Jewish cities. 

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In the 2019 election, in the Arab towns and villages alone, 33,620 people voted for the party, with another several thousand in the mixed cities. Overall, 48.7 percent of the Arab community voted in the election, with a fifth voting Meretz – a significant achievement that to some extent compensates for the overall disappointment that the party won about 9,000 fewer votes than in 2015.

But the numbers are only a part of the story. Not only did Freige save Meretz and the Zionist left from extinction, but today Meretz is a party whose members and supporters include citizens from both peoples that share the country.

Here there’s real potential – maybe not for a dramatic change in the government, but for an Arab-Jewish party that will strive to achieve a just and egalitarian society. There was a time when this emphasis on the connection between Jewish and democratic – to which was added just, egalitarian and based on brotherhood – was called the Zionist left.

Now let me say a few more words about Esawi Freige. I met him recently when I asked him to testify at the Military Court of Appeals at a hearing that took place at my request – the aim was to publish the minutes of the Kafr Qasem trial. Freige, a native of that village who had family members killed in the massacre, spoke at length about difficult (and moving) things that educators should tell their students.

As he put it, “I’m here representing myself, representing the mother who lost her sons, representing the orphans who are sitting here with us …. I’m representing Arab society and my brothers from Jewish society who want to know the truth. The State of Israel, which is also my country … need not fear the truth.” Even during the most personal moments of his testimony, he insisted that justice is essential not only for Arab society, but for the Jews as well.

When Freige won a high place on the Meretz ticket in the party’s primary, some people in Meretz called him a wheeler-dealer. Such claims are familiar and are often heard when it comes to registration and voting in Arab society.

At any rate, whether or not Arab registrations are aboveboard, if Freige hadn’t gotten Arab voters to “go in droves” to the polls, Meretz would now be busy organizing the cardboard boxes in its archive. And yes, Arab voters chose Meretz mainly because of Freige.

The effort to establish a Jewish-Arab political partnership is as old as Zionism, and one of the most interesting and complex attempts can be attributed to Mapam, a forerunner of Meretz. But in recent decades, this idea has been shelved for Machiavellian reasons – the attempt to attract the right.

The alliance for which the builders of the country yearned was taken apart by various Labor and Meretz VIPs. The most recent election indicates that the openly rightward and anti-Arab shift by Labor chief Avi Gabbay didn’t help Labor at the polling stations, whereas it saved Meretz. With voters, it turns out that Freige is worth more than retired general Tal Rousso, No. 2 on the Labor slate.

Now the question is “What next?” Should we attempt to merge Labor and Meretz? Or maybe, as some members of Labor are proposing, wait until Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan disintegrates, and then join with parts of it and become a genuine “center.”

But there’s another option: to continue the momentum created by Freige and establish a Jewish-Arab party. Why? Not because we would definitely win the election, and not to create a “blocking majority” against the right. Rather, this would be the right thing to do, something just and worthy.

Adam Raz, a historian, is author of the Hebrew-language book “Kafr Qasem Massacre: A Political Biography.”

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