Meretz's new Israeli-Arab candidate vows to fight for Jews, Arabs alike

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Together with Esawi Frej, who will be fifth on the list, Rinawie Zoabi will ensure that the party’s top five is 40% Arab, which she called courageous.

MERETZ CANDIDATE Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi:  My identity is both Palestinian and Israeli. (photo credit: Courtesy)
MERETZ CANDIDATE Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi: My identity is both Palestinian and Israeli.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began his high-profile effort to win the support of Arab voters for his Likud Party, Meretz made less headlines by doing the opposite.
The party announced that it is running a candidate in a realistic slot on its list for the March 23 election who is an Arab who wants to help Jews.
Peace activist Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, 48, will be fourth on Meretz’s list for the March 23 election, immediately after current MKs Nitzan Horowitz, Tamar Zandberg and Yair Golan. She will be the new face of the party that has promised to run independently after bad experiences in recent races running with unpopular politicians Orly Levy-Abecassis, Amir Peretz and Ehud Barak.
Together with Esawi Frej, who will be fifth on the list, Rinawie Zoabi will ensure that the party’s top five is 40% Arab, which she called courageous. The ninth candidate will be Druze educator Ali Salalha.
Rinawie Zoabi is the founding executive director of Injaz – the Center for Professional Arab Local Governance. In that role, she advocated for dozens of Arab communities across the country in government ministries and the Knesset, gaining experience that she intends to use as an MK to advance Israelis in poor sectors, regardless of ethnicity.
“I want to represent not just Arabs but also the entire socioeconomic periphery,” she said in an interview conducted on Zoom. “The coronavirus revealed the differences between the North and the Center of the country. There is not a single hospital in the North with a rehabilitation ward. To get a CT or MRI in Safed takes seven times as long as it takes to get one in Kfar Saba.”
Hearing a candidate by the name of Zoabi advocating for Jews is startling at first, because Balad MK Haneen Zoabi, who served for a decade from 2009 to 2019, earned a reputation as one of the most extreme MKs, participating in the Mavi Marmara flotilla.
Rinawie Zoabi is not directly related to Haneen or to young pro-Israel advocate Muhammad Zoabi. She is distantly related to Na’el Zoabi, a school principal being considered for a slot on the Likud list.
“Zoabi is like Cohen,” she said. “There are 22,000 of us in Israel.”
Born in Nazareth, Rinawie Zoabi is married to an engineer educated in the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, where her daughter is currently enrolled. She has a son finishing high school.
A proud graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she helps fundraise for the school, as well as for Beit Issie Shapiro, which helps handicapped children, and for another nonprofit that helps women suffering from breast cancer. She has been involved in dialogue groups for the New Israel Fund.
“My identity is both Palestinian and Israeli,” she said. “I am a member of the Palestinian people, like you are a member of the Jewish people.
“We need to advance to a solution of two states for two peoples. It’s not the most inspiring dream, but it is the most realistic one. If I want the Palestinian state to be sustainable and control its resources, we need to pursue a solution of Palestine living side by side with a Jewish and democratic state.”
In that context, Rinawie Zoabi strongly opposed the Nation-State Law that Netanyahu passed. She said the law is racist because it calls for the advancement of Jewish communities and not Arab ones.
“It reminded me of the bad old days in history, as if the state’s resources belong first to the Jews,” she said.
Rinawie Zoabi said Netanyahu’s efforts to woo Arab voters are “mega-cynical.
“I have been following Netanyahu for my work for a decade,” she said. “I saw not only what he said but what he did. I don’t remember him visiting an Arab community more than three times in a decade, and now he came to three communities in 10 days. I believe the Arab community is not stupid. They are smart enough to know the difference between the truth and a forgery. It is not going to work.”
Asked about Ra’am (United Arab List) leader Mansour Abbas, who wants to reach out to the Israeli Right, she said his intentions were good, but she opposed his approach.
“Politics needs ideology,” she said. “The politics of give to get is wrong, especially with a prime minister who has broken promises for so many years.
“We see Bibi broke his promises to him, too. He promised in the beginning of December that the government would allocate funding to fight violence in the Arab sector within two weeks. Now, it’s the middle of January and he is just making the same promises.”
When asked why she is running with Meretz and not the coexistence-backing Hadash Party that is part of the Joint List, she said she sees Meretz joining a coalition, which the Joint List would not do.
“I see politics as a tool to change reality from within,” she said. “We can enter an alternative government. Meretz backs values of socioeconomic solidarity, equality and social justice. I believe Meretz can be in the government with those three issues.”
THE ONLY realistic candidate to head such an alternative government on the Center-Left is Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid. When he entered politics, he said he would never cooperate with Arab politicians whom he referred to in English in a Hebrew interview as “the Zoabis.” Last Saturday night, Lapid told Channel 12’s Meet the Press program that he referred to Balad joining the government and that he had no problem with the Joint List enabling him to form a government.
“I see how Lapid has changed,” she said. “He isn’t speaking out against the Zoabis anymore. I want to hope that Jewish Israeli politicians are starting to realize that Arab voters are not just a pantry of votes. We can be partners.”
Joint List MKs noticeably voted against the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain because they did not involve the Palestinians. She said she also would have urged the Palestinians to be included but she would have voted in favor.
“I believe in every agreement that will advance peace between Israel and Palestinians and Israel and its Arab neighbors,” she said. “I heard Bibi say the world was wrong to think that peace with Arab countries would come via peace with Palestinians and that he thinks peace with Palestinians will come from peace with Arab countries. I say peace with Arab countries that is not combined with pursuing peace with Palestinians will always be inadequate.”
Rinawie Zoabi said that as long as there is no solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she does not see Arabs performing National Service, but she said there could be volunteer work led by local authorities.
Regarding Meretz’s elitist stereotype, especially in the eyes of younger Arabs, she said working with Joint List and Meretz MKs made her see how much the partnership of Jews and Arabs is in the heart of the work of Meretz.
She vowed to work to fight unemployment and promote education among both Arabs and Jews.