Ofer Cassif was, until recently, a relatively unknown figure in Israeli politics. Although he has been active in the country's Hadash (Al-Jabha) party for decades, by day he is a political science professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. Yet, since he was chosen as Hadash's only Jewish representative ahead of the upcoming general election on 9 April, he has grabbed headlines and ruffled feathers.
The ideological descendent of Israel's Communist Party, Hadash is the only party that boasts Jewish and Arab Israelis working in tandem; approximately 90 per cent of its members are Palestinian citizens of Israel and the other ten per cent are Jewish Israelis. "We are the only party that, on a matter of principle, is based on Jewish-Arab partnership," Cassif tells MEMO. "I use the term partnership rather than solidarity because it is much more profound, more systematic; I always emphasise that in Hadash, partnership between Jews and Arabs is a matter of daily life, not a tactical decision."
Yet in an election race that has seen the right-wing dominate the agenda once again, for many this Jewish-Arab partnership represents a threat. Cassif has been labelled everything from a "firebrand" to "an enemy of the state", with Avigdor Lieberman – the notoriously right-wing former Defence Minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party – last month filing a petition against his candidacy.
Lieberman claimed that Cassif incited against Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state", arguing before the Central Elections Committee that he should be prevented from running in the election next week. In March, the committee voted to ban him, thrusting him into both the domestic and international spotlight. Though Israel's Supreme Court eventually overturned the committee's decision, clearing Cassif and simultaneously the other main Israeli-Arab faction, Ra'am-Balad, for electoral participation, the stage was set for a much wider battle.
At the heart of this battle is what Cassif calls the "hegemonic discourse" dominating Israeli politics, a system that he believes needs to be dismantled in order to tackle some of Israeli society's biggest existential questions: the occupation, its ethnic minorities and the seemingly interminable shift to the right. "We need to shake the system," Cassif explains. "That means exposing all the lies and crimes which the Israeli government has been perpetuating, and not being afraid to challenge the discourse surrounding them."
He adds that sometimes the truth can only be exposed by using sharp terms. "I think that when one refrains from or is afraid of using these words, that person is playing into the hands of those who want the hegemonic discourse to continue. I hope that we in Hadash succeed in doing that."
Cassif believes that this hegemonic discourse, which for almost a decade has been dominated by incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party, is beset by racism and anti-Palestinian rhetoric. Asked what he thinks about Netanyahu's campaign slogan — "It's either Bibi or Tibi" – which juxtaposes Netanyahu's nickname with that of Ta'al party head, Ahmad Tibi, who is now part of the Hadash-Ta'al alliance – Cassif says that, "Netanyahu proves time and again that he is probably one of the most racist political figures in Israel, not solely because of his views but because of the power he has in his hands."
The Prime Minister, he reminds us, opened the door for the Kahanists, the ultra-right-wing Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party which takes its ideology from extremist rabbi the late Meir Kahane. "It was him who opened the door for them to enter the Knesset; he also promised one of them, [Itamar] Ben-Gvir, to be a representative on the Judicial Appointments Committee that nominates judges… If Netanyahu has one serious and consistent political opinion, its racism."
Cassif also points to Netanyahu's recent comment that Palestinian citizens of Israel – who make up just over 20 per cent of the country's population – "have 22 other states" to go to and therefore do not need to be granted equal rights within Israel. "This racism is probably the most disgusting one could imagine," he insists, "because he is saying that Palestinians, who are actually the indigenous people of this country, have another 22 states and [Israel] is not their state. This is something unbearable."
Yet for Cassif, Netanyahu is only part of the problem. Like his predecessor Dov Khenin — who served as Hadash's Jewish representative from 2006 but stepped down earlier this year — he believes that Netanyahu's continued push to the right has been aided and abetted by the left-wing's failure to provide an alternative. "Those who are supposed to introduce an alternative public discourse have actually adopted the racist discourse that was introduced primarily by Netanyahu himself."
The best example, explains Cassif, is that Netanyahu has said time and time again that [Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) head Benny] Gantz and [party number two Yair] Lapid are going to establish a coalition by working with the Arab parties. "Instead of saying 'what's wrong with that? They are also citizens of Israel', Gantz and Lapid said 'no, no, no, we won't,' and then worse still, Gantz said he won't even talk to those parties in order to get their support." This, he adds, is why the extreme right wing has won time and time again for 20 years now. "Those who are supposed to represent an alternative have also adopted the hegemonic [right-wing] discourse. They are chickens, political chickens."
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That Cassif sees this as a 20-year-old problem is vital to understanding his solution going forward. For him this is not a short-term issue that can be solved in the remaining week before the election, or even in the next Knesset term that will follow 9 April. Rather, it is a long term project that all Israelis, both Arabs and Jews alike, need to tackle head on.
"I have been to many towns, villages and cities [on the campaign trail], Jewish ones, Palestinian ones," Cassif tells MEMO. "Some of them are in a dilemma over which party to choose and some are hesitating over whether to vote in the election at all. It's these people who are the most important to talk to, firstly to convince them why it's so crucial to vote and secondly why it's so crucial they vote for Hadash."
Voter turnout could be an issue for the Hadash-Ta'al alliance. In an article published at the weekend, Israeli daily Haaretz reported that only 50 per cent of Palestinian citizens of Israel plan on voting in the election, a 19 per cent drop on 2015. "One of the things our potential voters must understand," stresses Cassif, "is that if they don't vote, they automatically give priority to the right wing." There are myriad reasons for this apparent disillusionment with the political system, including the failure of the now defunct alliance of Arab-Israeli parties, the Joint List, to secure meaningful change for Palestinian citizens since 2015, to name but one.
Yet for Cassif, this is just another challenge to be overcome. "There are three important things to emphasise when convincing people to vote. We are the only party based on Jewish-Arab partnership. We were the first political party to talk about a future Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, as well as total and full equality among all citizens of Israel. Thirdly, as a socialist movement, we are committed to full equality across the board, which means gender, national, social and civic equality. This is what I emphasise when I talk to voters."
He also stresses that there are a number of crucial issues on which Hadash is unwilling to compromise, even if that makes it difficult to find allies in the Knesset. One of these is the cancellation of the Nation-State Law, which last July declared Israel to be the "national home of the Jewish people" and effectively turned Palestinian citizens of Israel and other ethnic minorities into second-class citizens.
Another non-negotiable issue is repealing the Kaminitz Law, which in 2017 made it easier for the state to demolish Palestinian citizens' homes and force the beleaguered family to pay the demolition costs. "Some Palestinians who face demolition prefer to knock their house down themselves to avoid paying the fine," Cassif explains: "This is a sadistic policy; it is terrible for someone to build their house, often with their own bare hands, and then be forced to demolish it."
Asked which of the parties contesting next week's election he believes are willing to accept these preconditions for cooperation, he admits that, "at the moment, I'm afraid there are none." Yet despite the obstacles facing him and his party, and the lack of a viable partner to support Hadash's platform, Cassif speaks with a rare sense of optimism.
"Socialists have to be optimistic otherwise they have no chance of going anywhere," he quips. "It's a long term project it's true, but it must begin somewhere. Who would have believed 25 years ago that [former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin would go to something like the Oslo Accords, or who would have believed that 40 years ago [former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin would go to Camp David?"
He is anxious not to get into a discussion of whether those treaties were bad or good. "That's not the issue here. The point is that these examples prove that sometimes, under specific circumstances, a leader or political movement may do things that no one could have believed they would. So who knows?"