Opinion

The Man Who Saved the Israeli Left – Twice

Lawmaker Esawi Freige in the Knesset, May 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Last Wednesday I picked up Meretz MK Esawi Freige from his home in Kafr Qasem and took him to a meeting in Tel Aviv. We’re friends and I hoped that on the way we’d be able to talk about all kinds of things, including politics (or perhaps only about politics). It didn’t happen because Freige’s phone didn’t stop ringing for a second. I can only say that during that hour, people from all the center-left parties were calling him. The man was like a human switchboard.

In addition to a former prime minister who called for an update, there was also another political figure from a known party who suggested that Freige join his party. “Your place is with us,” the man said, and Freige looked at me with a smile as he declined. There have been plenty of similar proposals over the last few months.

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It wouldn’t be far from the truth for me to say that the same characteristics and values that make Freige my friend are the ones that have made him so central to the political developments of the past few days. Over three months ago I wrote a small piece for Haaretz, entitled "The man who rescued the Israeli left." The opening sentence read: “One thing is clear: Meretz lawmaker Esawi Freige rescued the Zionist left.” I was referring to the impressive and exceptional achievement by Esawi and Meretz among the Arab public. Around a third of those who voted Meretz in the last election were Arabs, and without them, Meretz undoubtedly would not have crossed the electoral threshold.  Freige deserves most of the credit for that.

What I wrote then and what I’m writing now is not at his request. Back then I was surprised by the cynical, insulting attitude toward him among many leftists: He’s an operator, a guy who brings Arab votes in cartons, I was told. Apparently when kibbutz members vote en masse for a person or party, it’s democracy at its best, but when residents of an Arab village or city do so, it’s dubious. I have no time to deal with such foolishness. Since then Meretz has held another internal election, and Freige once again ended up in a high place on the ticket, without any spot being reserved for him. And it’s not easy – not even in Meretz – to be an Arab.

My aim with this whole introduction is to recall my argument from three months ago, that Freige had saved the left from annihilation (the first time). There will be many pages churned out about the developments of the past few days, and journalists and researchers will heap both praise and scorn on the hookups that led to the formation of Democratic Union. I assume that the Arab, Freige, will be left aside. He’s used to that.

At this stage, it’s enough for me to quote a sentence and a half from Yossi Verter’s column on Friday: “I asked [Ehud Barak] who the main person was who’d promoted the merger. ‘Esawi Freige,’ he said, without hesitation. ‘He’s clearly the “best man,” more than people think.’ [Nitzan] Horowitz says the same … without [Freige] this marriage wouldn’t have taken place.” Stav Shaffir, the third side of this union, also praises him.

And it’s the truth. Freige saved the left once, and now he’s saved it again. Without him, without these unions, one can assume that at least one party on the left wouldn’t pass the electoral threshold in the coming elections. Who knows, maybe even two. Whatever happens to Democratic Union, without Freige the union would be mere theory, an exercise in statistics.

Former Prime minister Ehud Barak, lawmaker Stav Shaffir and Meretz Chairman Nitzan Horowitz.

There is no newspaper that hasn’t mentioned Freige in recent days. When we bought cigarettes at a Tel Aviv kiosk, he laughed at an Israel Hayom cartoon about him. Who would have believed that Benjamin Netanyahu’s pamphlet would treat an Arab from Meretz as a threat. But I assume that, unfortunately, most Jews in Israel will remember him in the coming months only in the context of Barak’s apology to the Arab public, in which he indeed played a key role and opened the door to the union of parties. But if he is remembered only for that, it would be an injustice, because his contribution was much more vital.

Freige’s family lost several members in the Kafr Qasem massacre in 1956. I said to him half jokingly this week that it was a good thing that Israel didn’t expel everyone from the village, otherwise where would the left be today, without him to arrange things. He has told me many times that everything he does stems from his desire to change the social reality in this country and repair the disgrace.

He told me this week about his plans for after the elections. Will they actually happen? I assume they will. I’m waiting to write another article in this series entitled, “Esawi Freige saved the left a third time.”