Israeli-Arab party split over US strike on Syria

The Hadash faction within the Israeli-Arab Joint List demonstrated against the American attack on Syrian chemical depots.

al-monitor The destroyed Scientific Research Center is seen in Damascus, Syria, April 14, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki.
Shlomi Eldar

Shlomi Eldar


Topics covered

airstrikes, vladimir putin, bashar al-assad, chemical weapons, hadash party, douma, communists

Apr 16, 2018

“The United States has a rich history of aggression and bullying in the region under the pretext of [reported] weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be false.” This was the reaction of the radical left-wing Hadash Party, denouncing the US, British and French strikes in response to the reported use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime in the town of Douma.

In a statement issued by the party several hours after the April 14 attack, the party urged its supporters to protest at the US consulate in the city of Haifa and call for “an end to US aggression in Syria.” Some 100 protesters heeded the call and marched along the city streets, carrying Syrian flags and signs calling for an end to American military actions in Syria.

Not a word was spoken — not in the party’s announcement nor during the protest march — about the reasons for the combined strikes. There was no mention of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons to murder his own people or of the mass killings of more than 500,000 Syrians over more than seven years and the displacement of 5 million others from their homes.

This is not the first such response by Hadash. In April 2017, after some 100 Syrians were killed in a chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun in the province of Idlib, the party leadership thwarted a planned denunciation of the Syrian government. The heads of the Arab Joint List (grouping Hadash and three other factions) sought to condemn Assad. But Hadash, the dominant member of this alliance, torpedoed the move. The decision angered some Joint List Knesset members, who said they were ashamed of their colleagues’ automatic backing of Assad and forgiveness of his sins.

This time, the Joint List did not even consider issuing a condemnation of the Douma atrocity. Having learned from experience, the three other alliance members — the Balad, Ra’am and Ta’al parties — did not take a public stand on the events of recent days in Syria.

The Soviet regime was a bitter disappointment to Israel’s Communist Party, as it was to other Communist movements worldwide. The first cracks emerged back in the days of Josef Stalin, when the murderous acts against his opponents were gradually revealed, and during the era of Nikita Khrushchev who succeeded him. Hadash receives no support from Russia, and any contact it might have with the Russian Communist Party is purely ideological; Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t considered a “friend’’ of Hadash either. Nonetheless, almost three decades after the Soviet Union’s fall, most of the party’s veteran activists still espouse the guiding principle of the Cold War, which saw the United States as the root of all evil in the world and its involvement in various global hotspots as motivated by imperialistic aspirations. These sentiments have only increased since President Donald Trump took office due to his bias toward Israel and a general sense of acting irrationally.

Hadash adopted an anti-American line last year, too, following the chemical weapons massacre in Idlib. In an unambiguous statement, the Israel Communist Party that founded Hadash, known by its Hebrew acronym, Maki, said: “There is no justification for the US, which has already used weapons of mass destruction with destructive and murderous results against many countries, and which supports the criminal Israeli occupation, to appoint itself as judge in instances of crimes against humanity.” Once again, the United States was depicted as the root of all evil in the Middle East.

Maki Secretary-General Adal Amar told Al-Monitor that his party takes a principled, moral stand against the use of chemical weapons, but in Syria’s case, it cannot be determined beyond a doubt which side was responsible. Amar is a graduate of the Moscow University Communications Department, and at one time he headed the Maki branch in the Soviet capital. He argued that the party’s position of questioning the reports from Douma is a legitimate one, especially given that UN inspectors were about to arrive in the area just as the US-France-UK strike was launched. “We have learned from the grandiose presentation by [US Secretary of State during the George W. Bush administration] Colin Powell, who claimed Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction in order to provide the US with an excuse to destroy Iraq.”

When asked how his movement could support a ruler who massacres his people, Amar said, “I am not an Assad admirer, but there’s a principled position involved; this is the figure chosen by the Syrian people, and he is conducting a difficult campaign to save his homeland. The aim of this war is to bring about Syria’s collapse as a geopolitical entity with a role to play in the region, to divide it into ethnically based cantons as planned in Iraq, too, and then to empty it of all influence. In this, he saved his homeland. The plot was foiled.”

The controversial stance by Hadash has generated angry reactions in the political arena and among the Israeli public. Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and open Russian involvement there, in addition to the sickening images from Douma aired on Israeli television stations in the days preceding the country’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 12, increased concern about the events across the border in Syria and fueled the fury at Hadash for its understanding acceptance of Assad’s actions.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan posted a photo of Hadash Chair and head of the Joint List, Knesset member Ayman Odeh, captioned, “Supporter of Assad, the murderer of children.” Odeh did not respond, but Al-Monitor has learned that Odeh actually wants to condemn Assad but is outnumbered by the veteran forces in his party. The same was true after last year’s gas attack in Idlib.

A Hadash activist tells Al-Monitor that Odeh has to toe the line of the old guard. Many Hadash activists consider Assad to be a mass murderer but fear that the alternative would be abandoning Syria to the Muslim Brotherhood or the Islamic State and turning it into a religious state — a fate that runs counter to the secular ideology espoused by Hadash. And yet the condemnation by Amar and other Hadash members on the use of chemical weapons without attributing it to the Syrian president sounds like nothing more than lip service.

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