A double identity

The real problems of the community MK Tibi is meant to represent remain unsolved.

tibi 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
tibi 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
It was a mistake. So says Deputy Knesset Speaker Ahmed Tibi, explaining how he came to be listed as a Palestinian representative at the Qatari Forum for Democracy in the Gulf state. You can understand how it happened. Tibi, a Knesset member on behalf of Ta'al - the United Arab List, clearly feels equally at home in the House in Jerusalem and at international events in the Arab world and elsewhere. The last time I met him he was at a UN-sponsored peace dialogue in Moscow in June 2006. I think he was representing Israel, at least officially, but I couldn't be sure. The comment that most stuck in my mind was his accusation that Israeli bomber planes were deliberately targeting schools in Gaza. The monstrous charge was, of course, not backed up by any facts but went down well among the Palestinian representatives at the forum and was probably quoted by members of the press attending the session. The first time I remember meeting him was in the Knesset in 1999, not long after he had been sworn in. The parliamentarians had a chance to study the maps accompanying the Sharm e-Sheikh Memorandum - the plans looked like sketches at which eggs had been thrown, the yellow markings signifying areas of Palestinian civilian control. Tibi joked that one of the advantages of being an MK was that he got to see the maps earlier than he would have done had he remained the adviser to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. MKs and journalists laughed at the quip but it was the sort of snicker that occurs when you can't help being amused while feeling intensely uncomfortable. Everybody in the room knew Tibi, but no one was quite sure who he really was. Tibi's double identity seems built in. I have seen the former gynecologist being witty and charming, an excellent raconteur of tales over a good meal. I have also read the reports of charges against him. Several times Tibi has claimed the police single him out. But he has been accused of attacking cops at least four times. His hutzpa, charm and political immunity have served him well. EVEN BEFORE his political career, Tibi was a controversial figure, once reportedly injuring a security guard at Hadassah Hospital where he worked because the guard insisted on searching his briefcase. He was apparently dismissed for the attack but only for a few hours. He was reinstated after claiming he was being victimized as an Arab and should have been shown more respect as a doctor. When he first entered the Knesset he was No. 2 on the Balad (National Democratic Union) list. No. 1 was Azmi Bishara, who left the country a year ago after the police and Shin Bet (Israel's Security Agency) started investigating allegations that he had spied for Hizbullah during the Second Lebanon War. The political partnership between the two was short-lived but is hard to live down. Tibi has lately had confrontations in the Knesset with MKs from the Right trying to pass what has become known as the Bishara Bill, which would invalidate the candidacy of any MK or would-be MK who traveled to an enemy state without permission. After Passover, the Knesset is expected to convene to discuss a proposal by Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman to take action against Tibi for the Qatari incident and reportedly comparing Israeli policies to apartheid. Lieberman, a wholehearted supporter of the Bishara Bill, is seeking a special majority of MKs to at least remove Tibi from his post as deputy Knesset Speaker. It will not be the Knesset's finest hour either way. Lieberman says "even Hitler and Arafat were elected democratically" and was quoted last week as saying: "Tibi exploits his role as a Knesset member in order to harm and destroy the State of Israel, and therefore, his place is in the parliament in Ramallah and not in Israel." Tibi, predictably, responded by calling Lieberman a "fascist immigrant" who seeks to "get rid of me every time he doesn't agree with my calls for democracy." With an exchange of slurs like this coming in the week marking the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, one wonders how low the rhetoric will sink closer to Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel's 60th Independence Day celebrations next month. IN QATAR's capital, Doha, Tibi held a debate with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni during which Tibi trotted out his standard claim that Israeli Arabs were discriminated against, alleging there are three different modes of government in Israel: democratic for Jews, discriminatory for Arabs and apartheid for Palestinians. Livni in response pointed out the very fact that Tibi served in the Knesset showed that Israel was a democracy that respected minorities. The foreign minister said Israel had an affirmative action policy and, as quoted by the Post's diplomatic reporter Herb Keinon, said: "If there is an open position for an ambassador, and there is an Arab candidate and a Jewish one, I would choose the Arab one, though it's clear that I would not choose Ahmed Tibi for explaining Israel's positions abroad." The 49-year-old Tibi knows how to play both the downtrodden Palestinian and the sophisticated Arab doctor. His father was a bank manager in the Arab town of Taibe in northern Israel. His wife is a dentist originally from the Palestinian town of Tulkarm. His family is a local success story but their situation is not easy. Ahead of Independence Day, it is clear that the Israeli Arabs exist in an awkward period of heightened sensitivity. Many - probably the silent majority - have thrown their lot in with the country's fate, aware that for all its faults, it could be worse, especially in the Middle East. Others agitate and align themselves with the Palestinians, hoping that even now, after 60 years of growth which has not passed them entirely by, Israel will finally disappear. There are some who use the Knesset and the country's legal system to improve their lot; some who exploit those same establishments; a minority who have turned to violence and a majority who just get on with their lives, marking neither Israel's Yom Ha'atzmaut nor the Palestinian "Nakba," the catastrophe of Israel's independence. Perhaps the saddest comment on the situation came last week from the family of a Beduin soldier who fell when IDF troops tackled Palestinian terrorists in Gaza. Relatives of the soldier initially requested that his name not be published. It wasn't out of modesty. It was for fear that the grave might be desecrated and the family accosted by other Arabs for having a son who served in the Israeli army. While Tibi was free to speak his mind, safe in the knowledge that his political immunity stretches far, a newly bereaved family did not feel free to mourn properly. Not because of Israel's actions, but because of those in their own community. And here lies the true tragedy. This is an issue that should be high on the list of anyone professing to hold life and democracy dear.