(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/102FM)
MK Zouheir Bahloul and Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay were scheduled to meet on Wednesday to discuss the crisis over what Gabbay termed the “extremist” remarks of Bahloul's and his decision not to attend the Knesset’s marking of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.
The crisis has brought Bahloul to the brink of a decision to resign from the Zionist Union and from politics. But he told The Jerusalem Post in an interview Tuesday evening that “for the moment” he has decided not to leave, after many people sought to dissuade him on the grounds that doing so would mark another blow to Arab-Jewish relations.
“It’s hard for me. But more than a few people turned to me and asked me not to leave at the moment because it is liable to be another death blow to Arab-Jewish relations because I am considered a person who stands for cooperation. And if I leave, it will be interpreted as if there is no chance to live together or develop a shared existence.” he said.
Gabbay, for his part, implied in an interview with Reshet Bet on Tuesday that he might try to see to it that the party does not choose Bahloul if he seeks a place on its next Knesset list. He said it was up to party members to choose the list, but added: “I am not in favor of extremist statements by our MKs.”
The clash with Bahloul comes after Gabbay took steps in recent weeks to push the party rightward, first by ruling out that the predominantly Arab Joint List could be a partner in a coalition he heads, and then by declaring against the evacuation of any settlements as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Bahloul is reported to have told Channel Two television that he thought it inappropriate to participate in the Knesset ceremony because “I myself am not free.” Gabbay took strong exception to characterizing Israeli Arabs as being “not free.”
“I am very in favor that Arabs be part of our party and I understand the complexity. But I am against declarations that anger so many people,” Gabbay said.
“I don’t think the Arabs of Israel are not free. They are citizens with rights.” He added that more had to be done to improve their conditions.
“There is a great distance between this statement and reality,” Gabbay added. “It is a statement of incitement.”
Bahloul told the Post that he was not referring to the Arab citizens of Israel but rather to Palestinians in the territories. “I said that as long as the Palestinians don’t have a state of their own and are under occupation for 50 years they are not free.”
He said he has increasingly felt alienated within the Labor Party and criticized Gabbay for “flirting with the Right, sometimes even at the expense of the Arabs.”
Bahloul said he viewed the current clash as “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“I represent the Arab minority and I saw that my party chairman is unable to digest my positions and those of my public.
The Balfour Declaration is not perfect. It only gave the possibility of creating the Jewish state but it ignored Palestinian rights.
I am also Israeli, and think there is room for a Jewish state after 2,000 years of exile. But I am also obliged to my ‘Palestinian- ness’ and the Palestinians since then have not had a state or a national home or the realization of their dreams.”
He said that within the Zionist Union, “They don’t understand the complexity of the Arab minority, which is also Israeli and also Palestinian. They measure how much of a Zionist you are and don’t understand that I can’t be a Zionist. I declare in the media that I can’t be a Zionist. And I’ve had to absorb a lot [of criticism] because of this. They tell me that because of my positions I am a strange implant.”
Bahloul said that even before the clash with Gabbay, he thought of leaving the Knesset because of feeling unable to stop the “antidemocratic” legislation efforts of the Right, including the nationality bill.
“You are there and you fight, but without results,” he said.
However, he vowed that as long as he stays on, he will continue to fight within the Zionist Union so it does not move rightward and remains “pluralistic.”