Politics: Breaking stereotypes

Ahmed Tibi discusses January’s elections, the peace process and the Israeli public’s swing to the Right.

Ahmed Tibi has one eye on his interviewer. The other is on Al Jazeera, where he’s watching live coverage of the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al- Thani’s visit to Gaza. Another eye is on the desktop computer of his office at the Knesset, where he’s monitoring a discussion on Facebook (“I’m always on,” he explains.) Another is on his iPad, which he pops open periodically to check his appointments. Yet another is on his smartphone, where he’s texting with someone about a field visit later in the day to Kafr Yasif, northeast of Acre.
Tibi, the head of Ta’al (the Arab Movement for Renewal) and deputy speaker in the just-dissolved Knesset, has always been able to carry on more conversations than the average guy.
But some in Israel, particularly the right wing, don’t always like what he has to say – and on whose behalf he sometimes says it.
Tibi was tight with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, whom he’d met in Tunis in 1984 and for whom he later served as a political adviser over several years, including at the Wye River negotiations in 1998. The following year, he resigned and ran for Knesset, and has been a fixture of Israeli politics ever since.
His outspokenness continues to earn him fans and foes – among both Jews and Arabs. Likud lawyer Yossi Fuchs recently filed a complaint with the elections commission asking that Tibi be disqualified, charging that he had made a speech in Ramallah in January 2011 in praise of Palestinian “martyrdom.”
On the other hand, in January 2010, Tibi gave such a moving address to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day that Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) called it “one of the best speeches he has ever heard in the plenum” on the subject.
“I break stereotypes,” acknowledges Tibi. “I speak on a high level. I say things that young Arabs would like to say but don’t have the tools to do it.”
Now, as he prepares for January’s elections, Tibi faces many challenges: increased voter apathy, a constituency saddled with financial woes and too few doors to socioeconomic advancement, and political rivals who are refusing his call to unite all Arab parties on one list. But there seems little enthusiasm for talking about his greatest area of expertise – the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – and, as former US president Jimmy Carter put it in a visit here earlier this week, Israel’s “policy of promoting a two-state solution seems to be abandoned” anyway.
Tibi concurs. “Netanyahu succeeded in putting it on the shelf. That he will be prime minister again is not promising at all. And if [Mitt] Romney wins, we can say bye-bye to a two-state solution, and maybe I’ll go to a one-state solution,” Tibi offers in a wide-ranging interview in his office, which is adorned with Palestinian embroidery, a series of paintings of traditional Beduin life and a portrait of him, painted by a Jordanian artist as a gift, holding up the “V for victory sign.”
In addition to a picture with Arafat, there’s a more recent one of him with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had a very high-profile falling-out with Israel.
The idea of becoming a one-stater has become a hot catch-phrase of many, he notes, from young Likudniks like Tzipi Hotovely to Taleb e-Sanaa, the long-serving Beduin MK (United Arab List, or Ra’am) with whom he teamed up to form the Ra’am-Ta’al faction, which currently holds four seats in the Knesset.
Sanaa’s faction announced last week that it was changing its party platform and calling for a “democratic binational state as the solution to the conflict, which would fulfill the right to self-determination of both peoples,” including the right of return for Palestinian and Jewish refugees.
Some critics say adopting this binational “one-state solution” as a position may violate the Parties Law, which states that no political party may contradict Israel's existence as a Jewish and democratic state.
Tibi has meanwhile distanced himself from that position, saying that it’s only Sanaa’s – who brings about one third of the votes to Ra-am-Ta’al. Though he refers to it as a sort of Plan B (or C or D), the writing on the wall is troubling, he says, pointing to a Haaretz article that ran earlier this week under the headline “Most Israeli Jews would support apartheid regime in Israel.”
A poll, conducted by Dialog, found that “a third of the Jewish public wants a law barring Israeli Arabs from voting for the Knesset and a large majority of 69 percent objects to giving 2.5 million Palestinians the right to vote if Israel annexes the West Bank,” Haaretz reported.
“I support two states, but if Israelis really wants one, why not?” Tibi says.
“But if it’s going to be an apartheid state and not everyone is able to vote, what’s the point?”
He says there was nothing truly new in the controversial poll, whose interpretation is now being debated across the blogosphere. “The only news there is just an amplification of what I’ve said all the time – that racism is becoming mainstream. The real headline is that many Israelis don’t think an apartheid regime is a problem,” Tibi says. Without a solution, however, Israel seems to be heading toward becoming a “ethnocracy” – or, he adds, a “Judocracy.”
Uniting the Arab parties could add two seats to their Knesset representation, since just 53% of eligible Arab voters showed up in the last election.
But close to 90% vote in municipal elections, Tibi says, indicating that it isn’t about apathy per se. Still, political experts say the initiative is unlikely to get off the ground.
“Of course, most Arab leaders will say they’re willing to have one united list,” says Amal Jamal, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University. “But when you look at it realistically, I don’t think it’s possible, and I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
The key party scoffing at Tibi’s suggestion is Balad, made more famous of late because of a campaign, spearheaded by Likud MK Danny Danon, to keep MK Haneen Zoabi from running for reelection. Danon has collected 10,000 signatures, he announced Wednesday, of people who want the state to ban Zoabi from running because of her participation in the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza in May 2010.
Zoabi, asked about Tibi’s call for unification, suggested that he took the idea from her party. “Actually, one of the strategic principles of Balad is to unify the three main political parties,” she tells The Jerusalem Post, delineating the three main Arab streams as she sees them: communist, Muslim and nationalist.
“Ahmed Tibi really does not reflect a political vision,” Zoabi says. “He’s an individual in the Knesset. He doesn’t have an ideology; his ideology is to be a member of Knesset.”
Like Zoabi, Tibi may also be in hot water as the election season shifts into gear. Palestinian Media Watch, which recorded the so-called “Shuhada” speech in Ramallah in 2011, is planning to release the full 17- minute video of the speech he gave. Tibi says that PMW – a group with an agenda, he notes – did a deceptive cut-and-paste job to make him look bad. But Itamar Marcus, director of PMW, says that within the next two weeks they’ll hold a press conference showing the full speech, as opposed to the two-minute edited clip that they had released earlier.
Tibi, Marcus claims, tried to make it sound afterwards as if he was only talking about passive victims, but that he actually wasn’t. “Someone will make the complaint, not us. But according to our understanding of the law, since he absolutely glorified terrorists, he won’t be eligible to run for the Knesset,” Marcus says.
Tibi is not intimidated. “There’s still a case against me in the Central Elections Committee over this speech. They like to stick on me things I didn’t say. But I stand behind every word.”