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Ahmad Tibi: No Apologies For Being a 'Palestinian Patriot'

In an interview with Shlomi Eldar, Arab Knesset Member Ahmed Tibi realizes that he infuriates many Jewish Israelis, but he has no plans to apologize.
Ahmad Tibi (R), member of Knesset, the Israeli parliament, attends the funeral of George Habash, founder of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in Amman January 28, 2008. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed (JORDAN)

“I’m a Palestinian patriot whether you like it or not. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be Ahmad Tibi.” That’s how the Arab Knesset member who has spent fourteen years on the opposition benches of Israel’s parliament, describes himself in a special interview with Al-Monitor.

In some circles he is considered to be “Public Enemy Number Two” (after Knesset Member Haneen Zoabi), but it seems much more interesting to try and understand him than it is to reject him outright. Tibi, a politician with sharp instincts, eloquent Hebrew tinged with Yiddishisms, and a deep, almost intimate, understanding of Israeli society, knows how to enjoy a good provocation.

There is no other way to explain why he accepted the invitation from the Bar Ilan University Student Union to debate with Knesset member Aryeh Eldad (Otzma Leyisrael). Eldad is part of the most right-wing list on the Israeli political spectrum. To put things in the right perspective, imagine Tibi accepting an invitation to go to Teddy [soccer] Stadium to see Beitar Jerusalem F.C. play [whose supporters are known for their anti-Arab slogans].

But Tibi did show up.

What happened was that the event, called “Election Talk,” quickly deteriorated into a shouting match, and came quite close to descending into violence. Fearing for his safety, the security team rushed Tibi to the exit. As he walked past, an avid supporter of the “Hilltop Youth,” a settler organization that resists the evacuation of illegal settlements in the West Bank, spat at his back.  

Tibi knew exactly where he was going. Last week the Bar Ilan Student Union held a sample ballot in which some 4,000 potential voters participated. It was hardly surprising that the Habayit Hayehudi party (“moderate” far right) came in first with 28 seats (much more than the general surveys say it will receive); the more extreme right-wing party Otzma Leyisrael of [Knesset Members] Michael Ben-Ari and Aryeh Eldad, which is not even certain to pass the election threshold, received no less than nine seats at the university. 

Why did you even go? Wasn’t it obvious how it would end?

“It wasn’t my first time there. I was in Bar Ilan four years ago, and we had a civilized dialogue back then. They have Arab students there, and Jewish students who want to hear what we have to say. What happened this time was that Otzma Leyisrael got organized and attended just to create a stir. Then some [late ultra-nationalist Rabbi] Kahane supporters caused things to deteriorate to vulgar acts of violence. I heard a woman who attended the event speak on the radio the next day. She said, 'Ahmad Tibi was consistently arrogant and acted with self-confidence. That’s why he deserved to be spat at.’”

“It’s interesting,” says Tibi with characteristic cynicism, “that an Arab who shows self-confidence deserves to be spat at.”

Given the current political atmosphere in Israel, aren’t you worried about an assassination attempt?

“It’s true that attacks and incitement are on the rise, and the question of what it will take to go is from spitting to shooting has already been raised. I’ll leave that one hanging.”

Two weeks ago, I published the article, “Why Israelis Love to Hate Haneen Zoabi” on this website. They love to hate Tibi too, but less so. Unlike his colleague on the Arab opposition benches of Israel’s parliament, Tibi seems to know where the boundaries of legitimacy are drawn in Israeli public life. In other words, you wouldn’t see him on the deck of the Marmara [flotilla]. 

You’re not very popular, to put it mildly, with Jewish Israelis but unlike Zoabi, you don’t spurn Israeli identity. With you, Israeli identity is a lot clearer.

I would put it differently. The average — right-wing — Israeli doesn’t like it when anyone defies him or the consensus, and has a misconception about the role of Arab members of Knesset. The average Israeli insists that we represent the state. But I have news for him. I don’t represent the state of Israel. I represent my party and Israeli Arabs. I oppose the state’s policies, not the state itself. And yet, despite my opposition, my reproach, and my critical positions and speeches, I really do think it is necessary to extend a hand to the majority population, because it is in the interest of the minority. And we are a minority. I do quite a bit of work to integrate the minority into society, to discourage social isolation. And I speak to Israelis at eye level. It annoys them.

Why does that get them so angry?

“They are used to Arabs speaking to them from a subordinate position, but those days have long since passed. I represent a new generation of Arabs, a generation that I try to teach to stand tall, without being ashamed. Let there be a face-to-face dialogue among equals, without any manifestations of Israeli domination along the lines of, ‘You should be thanking us for paying you Social Security.’”

Having already mentioned the boundaries of legitimacy in Israeli public opinion, it seems as if Tibi challenged them nonetheless, at least on one occasion. It happened in late November. Tibi accompanied Abu Mazen as an advisor on his visit to the United Nations. The chairman of the Palestinian Authority returned from that trip having gained the historic recognition of Palestine as an observer state. It was a harsh diplomatic blow to Israel. In response to this unilateral step, and despite the explicit reservations of the US and Europe, the government started to build thousands of housing units in East Jerusalem. Tibi angered many Israelis because he participated in that visit. The people he upset were not necessarily from the right of the political spectrum either.

If you want to build a bridge between Jews and Arabs, then you’re shooting yourself in the foot. You spend more time dealing with the Palestinian issue. You accompany Abu Mazen to the UN and help him push Israel into a diplomatic corner. And you do all this as a member of the Israeli Knesset. Don’t you think there’s something wrong here?

“I think it is a mistake to describe Abu Mazen as someone who wants to destroy Tel Aviv and eliminate Israel. I was the guest of a Palestinian leader who wants to see two states for two peoples. That is something I believe in, and it is consistent with what I think. We’re not talking about Saddam Hussein. This is Abu Mazen. I fought for that moment my entire life. I will not apologize to anyone, including my constituents, for dealing with the Palestinian issue. I’m a Palestinian patriot. If I stop dealing with it, I’m not Ahmad Tibi.”

It has long been argued that the Arab Members of Knesset in general and Ahmad Tibi in particular have betrayed their role as legislators, and as such, have actually failed their constituents. 

Tibi, a popular subject of interviews by the Israeli media, has a ready answer for this up his sleeve. “Over 80% of the bills I submitted focus on socioeconomic issues. “But,” he adds, “the ‘mainstream’ Israeli media doesn’t show up to cover the bulk of my speeches or most of my activities. It prefers to focus on a trip to the UN or a speech I gave in Ramallah, and always from a critical point of view. That has more sex appeal to the media.”

Tibi says that in this context, it is mainly Knesset members from the right such as Miri Regev (Likud), who most frequently lecture him about that, saying things like, “What have you done for your constituency?” 

“Listen to me good,” he says, raising his voice. “I’ve passed more laws than Miri Regev. My name may be Ahmad, but I’ve passed socioeconomic laws that benefit the entire population, even in this horrible Knesset.”

Can you be more specific?

“Sure, there’s the law concerning compensation for flight delays, which affects the entire population, employment limitations on the medical professions, the law against gunfire at weddings, the law against corruption in local government, which requires transparency when issuing public tenders, and the law against cruelty to animals that I worked on in the previous Knesset. These aspects of my career are not as well known, and I have only given you examples of my parliamentary activity to advance socioeconomic issues.” 

In fact, even a precursory glance at the Knesset website shows the broad range of Tibi’s activities in the Eighteenth Knesset. He was Deputy Speaker, Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Arab Sector, a member of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, the Finance Committee, the Joint Committee for Equal Opportunity in the Workplace, and more.

In some absurd way, it seems like the Arab public in Israel exhibits a lack of trust in you. Mathematically, Arabs should account for about twenty Knesset seats. This would determine the outcome of the election. 

“We really are shooting ourselves in the foot.” You know, a study conducted in Haifa University found that 50% of Israeli Arabs don’t vote for reasons related to frustration and apathy. Only 10% will not vote for ideological reasons, with the excuse that they do not want to participate in elections for the Zionist parliament.

“We tell our constituents that frustration and sitting at home is no way to confront difficulties they face. Anyone who doesn’t vote is voting for the right. The truth is, I don’t think that this message has been absorbed.” 

Have you coordinated with the Israeli Center-Left bloc to obstruct the right?

“There’s nothing at this stage.”

In this current campaign, no less than three parties in the Center-Left are headed by women (Shelly Yachimovich, Tzipi Livni, and Zahava Gal-On). With which of them would you cooperate?

“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, but I prefer Zahava Gal-On. At least she’s not ashamed to say that she’s on the left." 

As for being ashamed, what do you think about Shelly Yachimovich’s zigzagging?

The Labor Party has never been left-wing. It did make bold choices and historic decisions back in [the late Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin’s day, and as a result, he was assassinated. But [Minister of Defense] Ehud Barak was never part of the left. Yachimovich was once a member of the left (she voted for [the Jewish-Arab socialist party] Hadash, S.E.), but now she says openly that she is not. In general, most of the tragedies that the Arabs of Israel and the Palestinian people have faced are the product of the Labor Party. It’s hard for me not to be disappointed with them, considering their position on Ariel College (which was upgraded to the status of university because of pressure from the right, S.E.), their support for the funding of settlements, and their warm embrace of the settlers. What can I say? The Labor Party established the settlements after all. 

We were just about to end the interview, but I couldn’t restrain myself, so I decided to “set him up for the spike.”

What do you foresee for the Nineteenth Knesset?

“I can tell you that the Eighteenth Knesset was the worst, but it should be said to its credit that the next Knesset will be even worse. The rightward tilt of that Knesset will be unprecedented: the Habayit Hayehudi party, the Bibi-Liberman bloc, Feiglin in the Likud, and Otzma Leyisrael, which will apparently pass the threshold. What could be worse than that?“

And there’s nothing good about it?

“The only good thing is that in my opinion, the Nineteenth Knesset will last two years at most.”

Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, and has reported on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work. He has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012). In 2010, Eldar directed the documentary film "Precious Life," an official selection of the 2010 Telluride and Toronto International film festivals, which won the Ophir Award (the Israeli Oscar for documentary filmmaking). He has an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and lives in Ness Tsiona.