‘Israel is my state and the Palestinians are my people' - interview with Esawi Frej

"Why do we serve in the Knesset? So we can deliver fiery speeches? We serve in the Knesset to change things, to serve a community," said the retiring Meretz MK.

  Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Esawi Frej, Israel’s Regional Cooperation Minister, was born in Kafr Kassem, east of Tel Aviv, in 1963, the eldest of 12 children. His grandfather was killed by Israeli Border policemen in the 1956 Kafr Kassem massacre. An accountant by training and a member of the left-wing, Meretz party, he was first elected to the Knesset in 2013. He is Israel’s second-ever Muslim Cabinet member.

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Thank you for taking the time to meet with us. First of all, I would like to ask you a question related to your presence in an Israeli government that was headed by Naftali Bennett, and the current government [headed by Yair Lapid], which are involved in many ideological and political contradictions. How do you explain your presence in light of where you come from, considering your party and your political thinking and ideology?

My answer to this question is very simple. Why do we serve in the Knesset? So we can watch? So we can deliver fiery speeches? We serve in the Knesset to change things, to serve a community.

I want to serve my community. I want to change things, so I must be a partner in these decisions. I am part of a government because I am part of a coalition. In politics, there is a coalition and there is an opposition, and we are part of Israeli society.

All the parties in the Knesset, Arab and Jewish, are Israeli parties that play the game of politics and run things. I see these things as normal. Being part of a coalition is a normal thing, but the unnatural thing is being part of this particular coalition, with the vast differences that exist within it. Right and Left together means there is a big ideological difference in principle.

 Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST/REUTERS) Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST/REUTERS)

The government has many diverse, ideologically contradictory components. Let’s say the dominant character of the government is right wing, which means that if you do not believe, for example, in an increase in settlements, there will still be an increase in settlements. You believe in the two-state solution. The government under former Prime Minister Bennett did not even believe in talking with the Palestinians and their president. How are you serving in a government that doesn’t seem aligned with your ideology?

True, everything you said is true. We knew him before we entered the coalition, but we always considered the alternative. This is the government that we are part of, not the government of our dreams. This is not the government that I dreamed of. It is completely contrary to my principles, my political ideas, and the political agenda that I have been advocating for decades, but a politician is always faced with choosing between the available options in light of difficult circumstances, the current circumstances.

"A politician is always faced with choosing between the available options in light of difficult circumstances, the current circumstances."

Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej (Meretz)
(L-R) Yossi Beilin, Minister Issawi Frej, Minister of Environmental Protection Tamar Zandberg and Minister of Health Nitzan Horowitz memorial ceremony of the Meretz political party for late Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin, in Rabin's Monument site at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on November 4, 2021. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)(L-R) Yossi Beilin, Minister Issawi Frej, Minister of Environmental Protection Tamar Zandberg and Minister of Health Nitzan Horowitz memorial ceremony of the Meretz political party for late Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin, in Rabin's Monument site at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on November 4, 2021. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

We had a preliminary coalition agreement for the government to refrain from acting on all the issues that were against our ideological agenda. And there were internal conflicts within the government, with each party pushing to implement matters related to its agenda. In this regard, I recognize that this government is the most right-wing in the history of the country. It put the Palestinian issue aside. It refused to negotiate with the Palestinians or discuss the issue.

I know, I understand that, but we had no other choice. We had to try and influence things from within. Politics is not a science of precise calculations. Politics demands flexibility. You have to know how to react quickly. So, to everyone who directs criticism or questions, I ask him here: Tell me the solution, tell me the alternative. What is the alternative? The alternative was worse, which is why I am satisfied with what I did under the difficult circumstances in which we found ourselves.

Is your decision not to run in the November 1 election final?

My decision now is that I do not need to return to the political arena. My goal is to make the Left-Center bloc succeed. My goal is to raise the participation rate in the Arab sector so we can be partners in this electoral battle. We can’t sit by and watch.

Whatever serves this goal, I will be there. Currently, we are trying to arrange the cards because it is a collective responsibility of good people. The party requires collective responsibility. There are racist extremists with their policies based on hatred of the other. These are the people who are waiting for me; I must stop them.

How do I stop them? I want to guarantee the success of democracy and the success of the Center-Left bloc. Let us be clear, without an Arab participation rate of at least 60%, this success is in danger.

No one can change this fact. The Arabs make up more than 18% of the eligible voters in the country. Last time less than 50% of the Arabs citizens participated in the vote and the effect was clear.

I am very worried that what happens next will be worse. At least in this government, it is true that there has been no progress on the Palestinian issue, and this is a painful thing, but on the internal level, this government did not incite against us as an Arab minority at home. Not like before. Before, all government policy was based on hatred and incitement against the Arab voter. We have not seen it in the current government.

Yes, there is a lot that we can try to correct. Life is a process. Imagine, after 73 years an Arab party, an Islamic movement [The United Arab List or UAL], is part of a coalition in the state of Israel, the state of the Jews. Could you imagine it? This is change, a change at the heart of public opinion. This change after 73 years, we need time in order to internalize it.

But the Israeli Jewish community’s acceptance of the presence of this party within the government coalition was not great. There has been much criticism about the participation of [UAL Chairman] Mansour Abbas and the United Arab List into this coalition by the Israeli Jewish community, not the Arab community.

True, very true, every new thing begins with opposition, but consider the time factor. For 73 years, Arab voters, Arab parties backed the traditional positions, and it’s been the same story. What have we achieved? We have insecurity and violence in our streets; we have a person dying from crime every day. There is no personal security.

What have we gotten? Poverty haunts us. Where are the achievements? Steadfast, steadfast, steadfast! What does it mean that I’m steadfast?

Let’s try another approach, let’s try another way. Why are we, like ostriches, putting our heads in the sand and saying no?  We are part of Israeli society, period, end of sentence.

"Why are we, like ostriches, putting our heads in the sand and saying no?  We are part of Israeli society, period, end of sentence."

Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej (Meretz)

This is the truth; this is the reality, and that’s how we should behave. This is what is required. We are an Arab minority, part of Israeli society, and we must act accordingly. We wanted our Palestinian brothers and our people to have a country because Israel is my state and the Palestinians are my people. I want to connect them [Israel and Palestine] to ensure security for you, for them, and for me, too. Let’s not fool ourselves.

To make a change, you must be part of the political game, not a spectator screaming from behind the fence of the stadium. I want to be a partner in the game. I want to be in the mix. Enough! So, we started to change this year. We did not miss the opportunity; even at the level of the budgets that were approved, the five-year plan [for the Arab sector] is 30 billion shekels [$9.26 billion]. In order for you to bring these sums to Arab towns and villages, you need to plan and approve programs and committees. All this process takes a year.

We went through it, and it was time for implementation. I have the ministry; I see it with my own eyes. The time for implementation and the transfer of budgets came, the voices started to rise, and each one [politician] chose his words carefully. Why try to fool people? This government should have stayed in office another year. I agreed to be part of it, and that was the most difficult part of the approval process.

If I agree, let me benefit. You entered the government; you should stop playing around. But personal matters and the egos of all these people, the parliamentarians, brought down the government. We have two Arab parties, the United Arab List and the Joint List.

I ask myself, what does the Joint List want? What does the United Arab List want: The good of the Arab community at the internal level, and the two-state solution. Palestine and Israel, they want both. Mansour Abbas came and adopted a new approach with strong leadership, even though he did not know how it would turn out. The other party [the Joint List] started throwing abuse at him. Why? Why?

So, you criticize the other approach?

Yes, for a simple reason. I grew up with the Communist Party. I voted for the Front [Hadash], a communist party, in the early ‘80s – ‘81, ‘82. My first vote was for the Communist Party. I never forget this, my friends.

We grew up on the idea of integration, part of Israeli society, Jews and Arabs, and two states for two peoples, and all these things.

We grew up on these things.

Then came Mansour Abbas and he said, okay, I want to take what you have said and become part of the coalition. Integrated. Why should I utter insult after insult at every opportunity? It is unacceptable.

The guy took another approach.

He said I want to serve my community through another approach. The plan that was for 73 years didn’t work. Let’s try something new. You can’t criticize every step [Abbas] takes for the sake of criticizing.

What happened in the Knesset? The UAL entry into the government did two things on the political level: On the right-wing level, because the government is right-wing, and Benjamin Netanyahu wants to be the father of the right, [Netanyahu is saying,] “I am a right-winger,” so he must support the Kahanists and their ideas. UAL entering the [government] means Netanyahu works as a Kahanist.

And this takes me to something I wanted to ask you. You are a minister in the current government, the second-ever Muslim minister in any Israeli government going back to the establishment of the state. Do you think that Israel is heading toward a radical change regarding the Arab minority in Israel, that it can participate in the government and in decision making?

Frej: It’s possible, but the situation in Israel is getting worse and very worrying. Because when I see opinion polls among the Jewish youth, and I see that the youth up to the age of 35 years, the largest party they support is Likud, and the second most popular is [Itamar] Ben Gvir’s [far-right party], I am forced to draw conclusions.

The youth in Israel is heading toward the Right and toward extremism. This of course affects the youth on our side. Every extremism is met with extremism on the other side, action and reaction. I am concerned about this issue, but my first and main priority is the relationship between Arabs and Jews within the state because I see that every peace process, whether with the Palestinians or the Emirates or Morocco, without internal security and special and healthy relations between Arabs and Jews, won’t happen.

Things have to go on. In my opinion, the most important thing for us in the country is the relations between Arabs and Jews. I mean, there are Arabs living in every Jewish town, in Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Haifa, Bat Yam, in every place, yes. It’s rare in Israel, very rare, to find a place where there are no Arabs, rare! Now there are thousands of Arabs living in Karmiel, Haifa in every place.

The Arabs are part of the state’s mosaic. The relationship between Arabs and Jews should be a good, good, good relationship because I see myself there. Because if the mosaic guarantees this good relationship, it is possible for us to find peace agreements and expand the circle of security and peace; it will be easy for us if that happens.

You just returned to the country a week ago. Tell us about your visit to Morocco. It was not the first. What are the projects that you are undertaking as minister of regional cooperation? We have recently seen several other ministers from this government visiting Morocco.

Look, you go where you are wanted. You go where you find a warm reception. You go where you find a smile, you go where they invite you. Where they don’t invite you, you don’t go.

Morocco has warm ties with Israel. Do not forget that more than a million Jews of Moroccan origin live in Israel. I mean, the relationship between the countries is based on friendship. Where the relationship is warm, it becomes stronger.

Morocco will have a major and pivotal role in the region because of its closeness to Israel and the Palestinians. Peace between governments is a beautiful thing that starts from there, but in order to guarantee this peace and to feel this peace, there must be peace between peoples.

How does peace between people happen? Through joint activities, mutual visits, discussions, all these things.

I see myself how individuals respond to other individuals, community to community and business to business. Because if trust is built and there is trust between people, everything will be very easy.

In Morocco, as part of my ministry’s activities, we had several meetings to build regional cultural, artistic and theatrical cooperation, to strengthen the bond and the relationship between the two countries, and the familiarity of the societies with each other.

If I contribute 1% to this effort, this is a big thing. I felt during my visits a desire and love from the people of Morocco to know us.

I saw the extent of Morocco’s commitment to security and stability in the Middle East and the renewal of the peace process, and this is something that is important to me. And another point that is very interesting: This was in Morocco, a country with Arabs, Berbers and Jews.

You will travel soon to the United Arab Emirates, to the city of Abu Dhabi. You go there regularly. You have good relations with Emirati officials and the head of state. What is the purpose of this visit? What do you want to discuss, and also tell us about the relationship between you and Emirati officials, and between the Emirates and Israel?

Look, you asked many questions with one question. I will answer one.

We have a strong and solid relationship with the Emirates and the brothers from the Emirates and a common interest in a win-win situation.

Indeed, I consider myself the son of the entire Arab world. I am Palestinian, I am Egyptian, I am Jordanian, I am Emirati, I am Moroccan, I am an Arab, the son of the entire Arab nation, and I believe we must support every peace process and rapprochement with any Arab country with all our strength because it is a guarantee for our existence.

As the son of an Arab nation, I represent the entire Arab world here. The Emirates is an open country, a friendly country. I have been impressed in my visits to the Emirates and my interviews with Emiratis by the extent of the willingness to strengthen relations on the basis of mutual benefit.

In what areas can cooperation advance between Israel and the United Arab Emirates?

Every field that can benefit the two countries. For example, the energy and water project that was signed with Jordan will benefit the Emirates, Israelis, Jordanians, and the whole region.

There’s the issue of transportation and the Jordan Gate industrial zone in the North [spanning the Israel-Jordan border near the Jordan River Crossing/Sheikh Hussein Bridge]. This will recreate the Silk Road. It will build a new Silk Road, like the old one between Haifa and Jordan to the Gulf, and the UAE is a part of this plan.

I am continually surprised by the Emiratis. The Emiratis are smart people. They consistently think about how to turn every commercial relationship into a link between people. Through my ties, I have strengthened my relationships with officials into strong personal ones.

We hope that little by little − we will need a little patience − we can strengthen the relationship between individuals and create the proper atmosphere. I have faith in peace and the Abraham Accords, Palestine, the Emirates, and Bahrain.

Peace between whom?

I am speaking about myself as an Arab. Take the word “normalization.” It is a positive word in every language of the world – “normalization of relations between individuals” − except for Arabic, where it is a bad word, demonized. But is there peace without normalization?

Opponents of normalization say that the Palestinian issue must be resolved first, and then normalization?

It’s OK, let me answer them. For more than 70 years, we have not been able to reach solutions. I want to change direction. I want to make peace with the Arab countries and see if the solution comes through them. For 70 years, there has been no progress, I am not committed to one solution.

"For more than 70 years, we have not been able to reach solutions. I want to change direction. I want to make peace with the Arab countries and see if the solution comes through them."

Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej (Meretz)

I think there is room for progress if we change our approach. Countries have their interests, and everyone works for their interest. An atmosphere of peace must be created in the region because an atmosphere of peace prevails over an atmosphere of war.

Let’s think how to bring security and stability in another way. There is a political movement called the Abraham Accords, and I want to be part of the political movement.

Two years ago, a few Arab countries normalized relations with Israel: Morocco, the Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan. Are there opportunities for other Arab countries? Are there contacts between you and officials in Arab countries that have not officially normalized or that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel?

Yes, there are relations with countries with which we do not have peace agreements, but all these, when they decide to take a step forward, see the overall benefit. Everything is good in its time.

There will be other countries that will join this process, but we want to show data demonstrating that it is for the mutual benefit of all countries, to the mutual benefit of the region.

Today, the level of trade with the countries of the axis of peace, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and the UAE, is staggering. Trade with Egypt has increased fourfold in the last year. With Jordan, the gateway to the region, the issue is water and energy, meaning for the economic benefit of the whole region.

The economic benefit is evident when it is proven in the numbers, and the vision of all the countries can take on a clearer and more courageous character.

We are working on that, and of course, we do not forget the Palestinian situation, because I believe that without any significant progress on the Palestinian issue, we will struggle to make progress. There are positive developments in this regard.

What do you mean, for example?

Between now and the end of the year there will be a meeting [with Palestinian Authority officials of the revived Joint Economic Committee (JEC)]. I am the chairman of the JEC. According to the Paris Protocol [officially the Protocol on Economic Relations, signed between Israel and the PLO in 1994], the Oslo Agreement has five annexes; one of these is the Economic Annex. It was signed and written where? In Paris, it was called the Paris Protocol. It is the economic annex from Oslo that regulates trade relations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

There is fear the political track will be forgotten if you strengthen the economic one.

It [the political track] will not be forgotten as long as you are here. If you want a political horizon, you need to find a solution. It will not be forgotten without reaching a solution [to the Palestinian issue]. We are trying all the time to find solutions and answers, even for the issue of an airport [the Palestinian demand to be able to travel using a local airport], we are trying to find a solution.

Let’s take electricity, for example. What is the proposal regarding the matter of electricity? This issue is very important in the Palestinian territories due to the continual interruption of power, especially in the summer.

There are several tracks on electricity. The first track must be green electricity in the Palestinian Authority areas, and this matter has European support, Emirati support, and support from several powers. It entails obtaining green energy from sunlight. Second, Jordan is a country that produces a surplus of electricity. I tried at more than one point to raise the issue in order to get the Palestinian Authority electricity at a good price.

What’s happening with the donor countries? You were at a donor countries’ meeting, encouraging them to provide the Palestinians with financial aid projects.

I attended the donor countries’ meetings, and in September I will be at another one in America. I have been astonished that we and the Palestinian Authority have not been included in the priorities of the European parties, and of the world for that matter.

But the donor countries have their own problems; the Ukrainian war came, as well as the wave of migration to Europe and several other things. They reminded me that when they gave us projects [in Gaza], they were bombed and destroyed. The donor countries will not be the saviors of the Palestinian Authority.

The saviors of the Palestinian Authority will be the Palestinians themselves, and the Israelis are with them because we have the same interest. I am still waiting for the donor countries to return. Things are not going in the right direction.

The Palestinians must have sufficient wisdom to strengthen their present, and the economic structure follows the present. Because the economic structure is the guarantee that you will keep thinking about the political issue.

On the Jordan Gate project and its recent approval by the Israeli side, are we at the beginning, the middle, or the end?

The issue is that there is land on the Jordanian side and land on the Israeli side that are linked by a bridge, and this land will all be incorporated into a free trade zone with an electronic fence, meaning you can move freely within it.

On the Jordanian side, 700 dunams [173 acres] have been prepared and an initial set-up of five factories has begun, employing 500 people there. The bridge linking Israel and Jordan was built at a cost of 700 million shekels. Now in the last [Israeli] Cabinet session, construction of the border crossing point was approved, and the Israel Crossings Points Authority must start work within 120 days.

If we build the crossing and all the arrangements that were agreed upon, goods in Jordan will go to the Haifa Port, and the Israeli investor will start constructing buildings that, for example, will employ Jordanian high-tech workers, because the pay there will be according to the Jordanian market, which costs less than in the Israeli market. The goal is to have more than 10,000 Jordanian employees in the industrial zone.

Second, the goods that come from the port and go overboard to the Gulf region will be stored there, meaning there will be a traffic process. And third, factories will be built in the zone that will absorb a Jordanian workforce that will benefit many investors who want to move to the Jordan region because of the manpower available on the Jordanian side.

This step, in my opinion, will change the economic situation of the two countries.

What will be most of the economic activity in the zone? High-tech?

High-tech and storage. The storage process will have a long-term effect because today transportation is a major expense for all companies. When you take care of transportation and storage yourself, you reduce the cost by 50% because you don’t have a port.

One last question. US President Joe Biden was in the region last month and there was a great deal of talk and expectations that several normalization steps would be announced with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Will you be flying directly to Saudi Arabia, you and other pilgrims?

God willing, I will perform hajj the next time I go, directly. This is my dream, that I will perform hajj flying directly to Saudi Arabia.

And do you think you will be able to do this next year?

Yes, but the kingdom is responsible for the holy places and their protection. It is its duty to provide the possibility to every Muslim, wherever he may be, to carry out his religious duties. Currently, Israeli Muslims are required to pay up to $10,000 [to get a temporary Jordanian passport to enter Saudi Arabia], while those from neighboring countries pay a third of the amount. This is unreasonable, and it is my duty as a representative, as an Arab Muslim from this region, to raise this issue. The brethren in the kingdom are receptive ears.

You seem optimistic about this matter.

Of course, I am optimistic. If optimism and hope are lost, life has no taste.