Is Ahmad Tibi the most powerful man in Israel's Knesset?

Ahmad Tibi explains why he accomplished more than Mansour Abbas and questions whether there will be an Arab party in the coalition again any time soon.

 MK AHMAD TIBI (Joint List) stands near Israeli mounted police outside the Jerusalem District Court last year, during a protest over Israel’s planned evictions of Arab families from homes in Silwan. (photo credit: (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES))
MK AHMAD TIBI (Joint List) stands near Israeli mounted police outside the Jerusalem District Court last year, during a protest over Israel’s planned evictions of Arab families from homes in Silwan.
(photo credit: (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES))

The heads of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s crumbling coalition and of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition do not agree on very much right now.

But this week, they both boasted of the power of Deputy Knesset Speaker Ahmad Tibi, the head of the Joint List’s Ta’al Party.

Just ahead of Monday’s unsuccessful vote on the Judea and Samaria emergency bill Monday night, Ministerial Liaison to the Knesset Ze’ev Elkin said that while in the past, voters were told that their choice was between Bibi and Tibi, now they get both, because Netanyahu serves Tibi and helps him succeed.

Earlier that day, at the Religious Zionist Party’s faction meeting, party leader Bezalel Smotrich coined a new word for the government: “BennetTibi,” while mocking Bennett and his coalition partner, Ra’am (United Arab List) head Mansour Abbas.

“Today it has been proven for the umpteenth time that it is no longer a Bennett-Abbas government but a BennetTibi government,” Smotrich said. “Any bill that passes is thanks to the Joint List, which means Zionist legislation can no longer pass in this government.”

“Any bill that passes is thanks to the Joint List, which means Zionist legislation can no longer pass in this government.”

MK Bezalel Smotrich
Joint list party member Ahmad Tibi speaks during a press conference presenting the Joint list hebrew election campaign in Tel Aviv, February 23, 2021.  (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)Joint list party member Ahmad Tibi speaks during a press conference presenting the Joint list hebrew election campaign in Tel Aviv, February 23, 2021. (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

In a week when MKs Mazen Ghanaim of Ra’am and Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi of Meretz rebelled and their coalition may have breathed its last breaths, Tibi and the Joint List flexed their muscles in the parliament.

On Monday, Tibi succeeded in passing into law a bill lowering health insurance payments for Israeli students studying abroad. Tibi’s bill was backed by the coalition and opposition, and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman provided NIS 24 million for the legislation, which was put on the Treasury’s agenda in return for Tibi dropping thousands of amendments to another bill Liberman wanted to be passed.

Two days later, the opposition humiliated the coalition by passing the preliminary reading of Tibi’s NIS 40 an hour minimum wage bill in a 24 to four vote. Bennett cast one of the four votes against the bill, which Liberman called “cheap populism.” Shas leader Arye Deri worked with Tibi to pass it.

“Defeating Bennett was a planned operation.”

MK Ahmad Tibi

“Defeating Bennett was a planned operation,” Tibi said in an interview conducted on Zoom because he had tested positive for COVID-19. “After we received support from Ghanaim, I told Labor and Meretz that I had a majority without them and that they shouldn’t be on the wrong side of history. After a fight in the coalition, their MKs decided to leave the room for the vote. The bill might not be advanced more, but it had symbolic significance because it showed the coalition continues to crumble. The statement was made.”

Holding the balance of power

Tibi has been in the Knesset since 1999, but he has never been so sought-after by both the coalition and the opposition. After years of being a parliamentary pariah, he holds the balance of power when both sides have 60 MKs.

“Our votes in the Joint List are decisive,” he said. “Everyone talks to me from the coalition and opposition. We have our bills, and we want them supported by both the good and the evil. But we never once voted in favor of the Right’s bills against our conscience, even after the Likud and Religious Zionist Party MKs went against their consciences to vote for our bills.”

“Everyone talks to me from the coalition and opposition. We have our bills, and we want them supported by both the good and the evil. But we never once voted in favor of the Right’s bills against our conscience, even after the Likud and Religious Zionist Party MKs went against their consciences to vote for our bills.”

MK Ahmad Tibi

WHILE JOINT LIST MKs advanced four bills this week and passed Tibi’s into law, Ra’am has passed only two bills into law since the formation of the government last June: one on women’s work hours by MK Iman Khatib-Yasin and the high-profile electricity law, which allows thousands of illegally built Bedouin and Arab homes to be hooked up to the national electricity grid. Tibi said Ra’am copied that bill from him but allowed it to be shifted from the purview of Energy Minister Karin Elharrar (Yesh Atid) to Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked (Yamina), who has prevented its implementation.

“I do not control the Knesset,” Tibi said. “I just take advantage of the situation to pass bills we like and oppose bills we don’t. The Joint List is in an interesting situation. If someone wants us to be a security net for the government, we aren’t there. But if the coalition has good bills for the public, like the bill helping workers who had the Omicron variant, we will support it. There is no chance of us supporting the state budget. We aren’t Ra’am.”

Tibi said Ra’am has been given plenty of funding on paper, but most of the money hasn’t gotten to the Arab municipalities and constituents, in part because “Shaked stops everything.”

He said he feels vindicated for opposing Ra’am joining the coalition.

“The conditions weren’t ripe and weren’t equal,” he said. “The Jews in the coalition gave the Arabs in the coalition a feeling that they were doing them a favor. Ra’am folded its diplomatic agenda, while the right-wing Jewish MKs in the coalition did not. Abbas gave Bennett and Shaked a government, but they have been humiliating and trampling him. He deserved it. He knew what he was getting into. He was even ready for a Netanyahu-Smotrich government.”

Tibi warned that the failure of Ra’am to bring results despite being in the coalition could bring down Arab turnout in the next election, and there will be an uphill battle in restoring the Arab public’s trust in the party’s ability to have an impact on decision-making.

Asked if he sees an Arab party joining a coalition again in the near future, he said he does not know, but a parliamentary security net from outside the coalition, as the Ra’am and Hadash parties provided then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin nearly 30 years ago was more likely. He noted that Joint List head Ayman Odeh said two years ago that he would join a Center-Left government, not one with the Right.

“Mansour Abbas brought his people into a pool without water,” he said. “Until now, he got more money promised in decisions, but not actual money. The people in the Arab sector have not felt the fruits of the coalition.”

“Until now, he got more money promised in decisions, but not actual money. The people in the Arab sector have not felt the fruits of the coalition.”

MK Ahmad Tibi

Tibi conceded that if the government overcomes its current crises and lasts until the next Knesset recess starts on July 27, there is a chance for Ra’am to help its constituents in a more noticeable way.

When asked whether he is not concerned that his actions were bringing Netanyahu and Religious Zionist Party MK Itamar Ben-Gvir to power, he said he would not be scared into acting differently.

“We will try to stop them from coming to power, but we are not the babysitter of Bennett and Shaked,” he said. “The coalition is falling apart by itself. It’s not me. The Jews are picking between Bibi and Bennett, and I won’t be imprisoned by their choice. We’ve prevented Netanyahu from forming a government.”

Tibi pointed out that his party was willing to help pass a bill that would prevent an indicted MK from forming a government. He said this government took important steps against violence in the Arab sector but was worse than the previous government on house demolitions, police violence, making the Negev more Jewish, expanding settlements and encouraging Jews to visit the Temple Mount.

Regarding the votes of Meretz MKs for extending laws benefiting only Jews in the West Bank, Tibi said: “One of the worst surprises of this Knesset was good people like Mossi Raz and Gaby Lasky voting for laws that discriminate. I am sure they did it with a heavy heart and will regret it for the rest of their lives.”

TIBI WAS asked if he has regrets about his meetings over the years with convicted murderers and their families. Maariv columnist Kalman Liebskind listed several such meetings last weekend in a column about why it is right to call Arab MKs terror supporters.

He responded that he can show empathy to the family members without agreeing with the actions of their sons.

“Journalists who back fascism and support killing Palestinians cannot scold me,” he said. “The occupation is terror, and those who support occupation support terror. There are things that even in a national struggle should not be done. Some of those who call me a terror supporter have blood on their hands of Palestinians they killed. I am against harming citizens. As a doctor, I have brought life into the world. I have never taken a life or expressed satisfaction for life being taken.”

“The occupation is terror, and those who support occupation support terror. There are things that even in a national struggle should not be done. Some of those who call me a terror supporter have blood on their hands of Palestinians they killed. I am against harming citizens. As a doctor, I have brought life into the world. I have never taken a life or expressed satisfaction for life being taken.”

MK Ahmad Tibi

Asked about Jewish-Arab relations a year after riots in Israel’s mixed cities, he said “relations paradoxically have not improved” and blamed Netanyahu.

“The Right increased incitement, because Ra’am was in the coalition,” he said. “Netanyahu returned to being Netanyahu the professional inciter, and he stopped completely being Abu-Yair. Ra’am being there has made the hatred come out more.”

Tibi met for the first time this week with US Ambassador Thomas Nides after he refused to meet his predecessor, David Friedman. He called Nides “a fresh change and an interesting, fascinating person who understands the region and wants to help Arab society.”

Regarding Palestinian politics, Tibi said Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s successor will be decided in democratic elections, not civil war.

“I hope they will make a good, smart, democratic decision,” he said. “I hope it passes quietly without conflict. The fight between Hamas and Fatah has harmed the Palestinians. The world is not interested. The Palestinians are not on the agenda of the US or Arab countries. It is not an easy time.”•