Undeterred: Haneen Zoabi, the Joint List and new political struggles

The outspoken and controversial Knesset member talks about BDS, the Arab Spring and how she hopes the Joint List will struggle harder against right-leaning politics in Israel.

MK Haneen Zoabi [L] speaks at a news conference announcing the Joint List political slate of all the Arab parties with Ahmed Tibi [R], in Nazareth in 2015 (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
MK Haneen Zoabi [L] speaks at a news conference announcing the Joint List political slate of all the Arab parties with Ahmed Tibi [R], in Nazareth in 2015
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Haneen Zoabi was busy in mid-July. As the Knesset debated a cavalcade of bills she had to run back and forth to vote. Between the votes on several controversial bills, such as one which would restrict the ability of organizations critical of Israel to access public schools, she spoke about what she sees as the rise of the Israeli right wing and the unmasking of Israeli democracy.
“Before the control of the right wing in 2009 [the state] felt more self-confidence to pretend this fake and demagogue ‘balance’ between being democratic and Jewish, actually Zionist.” In a real democracy the citizens have the freedom to make a real change she says.
Understanding Zoabi is important to understanding Israeli politics and particularly the mostly Arab voters of the Joint List which Balad is a part of. In 2012 Balad got almost 100,000 votes in the election and in 2015 the Joint List received 446,000, the third largest party in the Knesset.
The new bills passed by the Knesset which many on the Left decried in July, were also concerning to Zoabi. She points to the “Breaking the Silence” bill that would prevent groups that delegitimize Israel from accessing public schools. It prevents debate, censors and silences, she says. That means that part of the education values will “force the violence and coercive values of the army upon the ‘open’, ‘critical’ and ‘pluralistic’ minds of the pupils, something which sounds totally against the ‘values of education.’” Zoabi puts quotes around a lot of things in Israeli society because she sees many of them as merely being a veneer. Democracy is “so-called” here, she says. Much of this critique in another context, say by leftist philosophers discussing France, or Jeremy Corbyn when he was a younger radical angry at British policy in Northern Ireland, might seem normal. But in Israel it is not and Zoabi has been a lightning rod since she was first elected in 2009. She has also become a symbol, initially as the first Arab woman from an Arab party in the Knesset and later because of her active and vocal opposition to Israel’s policies. In 2013 Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said he would not be in a coalition with “a bunch of Zoabis.”
She gained notoriety for many Israelis for joining the Gaza flotilla’s Mavi Marmara in 2010. She’s always been outspoken on her views on Israel, telling The New Statesman in 2010 that “I was not elected in order to keep silent or to sit at the table and clap.” The Central Elections Committee tried to ban her from running in 2012 and other MKs tried to disqualify her in 2015.
Banned for six months by the Ethics Committee, she has been upbraided for calling IDF soldiers “murderers” in 2016. Eighty-nine percent of Jewish Israelis even supported revoking her citizenship. At the UN in April this year she said that millions of Palestinians should march on Jerusalem to end the siege of Gaza.
Born in 1969 and first elected as part of the National Democratic Assembly (Balad) to the 18th Knesset, she was reelected in 2013 and again in 2015. In the current Knesset Balad serves together with the Joint List which combines several mostly Arab parties and is led by Hadash leader Ayman Odeh. She has sat on committees relating to the Status of Women and Gender Equality, the Rights of the Child and Education, Culture and Sports. She is also a member of Knesset lobbies that focus on the advancement of education in the Arab sector, the struggle against violence, and supporting the economy for Arab citizens.
Today she thinks that as the Israeli Right feels more confidence it is passing laws that is turning Israel into a copy of extreme right-wing ideology. One of those laws is the Nation-State Law that passed this month.
“Colonialism and apartheid were a policy and a DNA [of Israel] before this basic law. Now it’s an identity.
Because colonialism, apartheid and racism were a possibility, today it’s an obligation.”
Zoabi sits on a couch not far from the Knesset members’ dining room. We have a coffee and some water.
She’s passionate and straightforward, but she chooses her words and criticisms carefully. It’s not just the right wing that angers her, it’s the Zionist left, which for her is not really left wing either. She points out that Shelly Yacimovich opposed the nation state law and the Breaking the Silence bill, but only because Yacimovich thinks the army is ethical and can withstand criticism. No need for a Nation-State Law, says the Zionist Left; Zoabi points out that they say “it our right to promote Jewish settlements even without this bill.” Zoabi’s point is that the Zionist Left in Israel doesn’t really critique the “colonialism and apartheid”; it just says “this is our land” and no new laws are needed. This represents a kind of “immunity against facts,” on the “so-called Left.”
In a kind of odd irony, Zoabi points out that the right wing in Israel seems to agree with Balad. “Balad says Israel cannot be a Zionist and Democratic state, while we [Balad] choose democracy, they choose Zionism.”
Then Zoabi returns to the problem with the Zionist Union party. “It is not a real opposition, they are not loyal to the concept of opposition, they can wear masks all the time, behaving as colonialists and having a self-image of liberals and democratic.”
And what about Meretz, it’s more left-wing than Zionist Union claims to be, so does that mean it’s time for the opposition to break with the state? “Meretz does not reach this conclusion. Its new leader Tamar Zandberg, she doesn’t say ‘now it is so clear we have nothing to do, we must re-think Zionism, it seems that Zionism cannot coexist or reconcile with democracy.’ On the contrary she said that she could even be part of a coalition with [Avigdor] Liberman.”
Zoabi is disappointed by the movement of Meretz in this “opposite direction.” The proof of Meretz’s failure to be an opposition in Zoabi’s view is that MK Ilan Gilon said Zionism is like couscous. “If you put in something good then it will be good. No, I’m sorry, Zionism is not about how we cook it. It’s not about the ingredients. It’s a colonialist project however you ‘cooked’ it. It will be poison.”
I wondered though, as a member of Knesset for nine years in what she sees as a state moving in the wrong direction, isn’t it getting boring? You can only be suspended so many times. “Unfortunately, it’s not boring at all, the amusement is actually very bad in this sense,” she says. “With the shift towards more fascist laws in the state, the incitement doesn’t decrease. I have been expelled by the ethics committee, there is even an ‘expulsion of MKs law’ which they call the Zoabi law.”
In fact the three Balad MKs were suspended in 2016 for meeting families in Jerusalem. For many in Israel it was seen as meeting “terrorists’ families” whose bodies the police had not returned during the spate of stabbings that year. In June Balad MK Basel Ghattas was sent to prison for smuggling phones into prison to Palestinian security detainees.
She says that Balad is facing the right-wing political culture and seeking to be vocal for people’s rights. Voters, however, are becoming more cynical and less confident in the Knesset to make changes for them. This means that “classical ways of political action” may be changing, since voters, particularly Arab voters, have less confidence in Israeli politics. “This has two impacts.
One is to be more passive and one is to be more radical. I think that as political leaders we are behind the expectations of our people and in that meaning our people ask us to be more strong and determined in opposing Israeli policies.” It’s time for a stop and rethink, she says.
Time to look for “new ways of political struggle, like civil disobedience, and first of all to engage our people more in our rethinking the aims and the tools of struggle.”
New ways of “popular resistance.” With the emergence of a stronger middle class and educated people among voters who choose Balad, people will want to take part in politics, she says, but not within the “classical tools.”
What are these new tools? “More dramatic tools which can break the normality of Israeli society’s life.
You as an Israeli in Haifa, Herzliya, on the kibbbutz, living upon my confiscated land or inside my stolen house, you should not forget these ‘simple’ facts.”
She says Israelis must not disengage from this reality.
“You should not live a normal life as long as you don’t allow me to live a normal life.” And what might this struggle look like? She mentions the international level. “Increasing sympathy and identification from youth in Europe and America, the voters of [Bernie] Sanders is a new phenomenon we should intensify.”
After Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her primary in the Bronx, Zoabi says the criticism of Israel in those sectors reveals that “it is more and more obvious that Zionism is a way of racism.”
Once again Zoabi sees a silver lining in the new raft of bills in the Knesset. This “fascist political culture” is an opportunity to show the world that one cannot continue the old frameworks. For instance “the 20 years since the Oslo [Accords], the abandonment of defining Israel as an oppressor and occupier. this discourse encourages Israel to shift from illiberal-colonialism/ racism to fascism.”
Decades after Oslo the two-state solution is going nowhere. Zoabi has been critical of the two-state concept in the past, now she notes that waiting for “internal dynamics” to change Israel will not work.
“Change must come from outside, it must be forced from outside.” The problem, in her view, is that the Palestinian struggle is not struggling enough. The Palestinian Authority is ‘coordinating’ with the colonizers, the PA is facilitating occupation. For the last 10 years it was the optimal help to Israel. Israel couldn’t dream of such a PA.” She has hope for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and the International Criminal Court and other pressures on Israel. She sees success in incidents such as the Argentina national soccer team not coming to Israel.
But hasn’t US President Donald Trump provided Israel wind in its sails as a pro-Israel president? “I don’t see a dramatic change, remember before Trump… Obama… he didn’t even succeed in stopping expanding settlements; let’s not accept any illusions about that.” So Israel has unlimited support under Obama in terms of things like budgetary support, and it does today, she notes. Here Zoabi pauses and mentions Gaza and protests there against Israel. “I didn’t mention Hamas, but Hamas are part of the people, they are part of my people and no one has the right to determine to me or to my people who is our leader,” she says. Then she pauses again. “This shouldn’t hide my criticism [of what goes on in Gaza] regarding women’s issues, censorship, political oppression, closing NGOs and coffeeships, persecution of activists [in Gaza].”
But she notes that if one critiques Hamas, Israel should also look in the mirror about its friends in the region, “dictators in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and Egypt and with those who are homophobic and Isalmophobic, and antisemitic.”
As we spoke and the Knesset, voted the Syrian regime was dealing a crushing blow to Syrian rebels in southern Syria. Like with the hopes some had for Oslo bringing a new era of peace, many thought the Arab Spring in 2011 would bring a new era in the Middle East. But it didn’t. “We are in a new historical period in the Arab world, history cannot go back. I don’t see the Arab Spring as an act of change, I see it as the beginning of a process of change,” she argues.
It’s not a question of whether the Arab Spring brought democracy, but whether there is a process of change. “For me, the answer is yes because it changed the minds and souls of the young generation in the Arab world.” So young people in the region see new possibilities and potential.
Zoabi in some way embodies this drive towards new possibilities. She says she does not believe in heroes.
“Everybody can be a hero, it’s a new reality in which the ordinary people are true heroes.
The problem for her and Balad is that the Joint list must wrestle with what to do in the future. It ran in 2015 largely because the smaller mostly Arab parties had to join hands or risk being pushed from the Knesset by a new threshold. Communists, Arab nationalists, secularists, religious, all were thrown together.
Zoabi sees the future of the Joint List as one of two scenarios. Either a minimalist Joint List survives and continues “but with a lot of power conflicts and without a political strategy,” or under a maximalist scenario with unity in political vision. “This is the scenario I believe in. I didn’t perceive it [the List] as a tool for political survival,” she says. Rather it could be a way to empower the Arab parties at the political level. “The only real decolonization and democratic power inside and outside the Knesset. By presenting a very unified anti-Zionist discourse and challenging the system and cutting and blocking the government’s attempts to differentiate between moderate and accepted and radicals, to raise ourselves up, so if Liberman raisesthe voting threshold we will raise the political threshold.” In a sense: If they thought they could get rid of us, it will only make us stronger together.
Zoabi dashes off to vote. She greets a few people in the Knesset.
To pass the time while waiting, I ordered some mediocre food from the Knesset cafeteria. The sun was shining. Israeli flags flapped in the wind. It’s a hot summer. A woman was giving a loud interview nearby explaining why groups like Breaking the Silence should be kept from schools. It’s the consensus, she said. Israeli society supports it.