Ahmad Tibi is, in many ways, the face of Palestinian politics within Israel. Boasting 20 years’ service as a Knesset Member (MK), he sees no reason why he shouldn’t one day become Israel’s Prime Minister. Yet with only days to go until the General Election, Tibi must battle anti-Palestinian rhetoric, an increasingly-emboldened right-wing and disillusionment among the Arab-Israeli community to secure his re-election to parliament. True to form, he has some strong words to say on the matter.
Tibi holds the number two slot in an alliance of Israel’s biggest predominantly Arab parties, Hadash (Al-Jabha) and Ta’al (the Arab Movement for Renewal). Comprised of some of the best-known names in Arab-Israeli politics, including Hadash head Ayman Odeh and long-time MKs Aida Touma-Sliman and Yousef Jabareen, Hadash-Ta’al is a force to be reckoned with.
“The Hadash-Ta’al coalition is a strong one,” Tibi tells MEMO. “We hope to gain a number of seats so that we can continue the struggle of pushing back against Israel’s racist laws and fascism, as well as push for Palestinian freedom.”
And struggle they must. Since Israel last held elections in 2015, its government — led by incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party – has passed a host of laws which discriminate, directly or indirectly, against the country’s 1.8 million Palestinian citizens who make up 20 per cent of the population. Chief among these is the Nation-State Law, which last July declared Israel to be “the national home of the Jewish people”. The document failed to mention Palestinian citizens of Israel and, by depriving them of their right to national self-determination and downgrading the status of the Arabic language in Israel, has effectively declared them to be second-class citizens.
The law was a severe blow to Arab-Israelis; it has cemented their disillusion with the government and politics in general, and this has shown in the run up to the election. Hadash-Ta’al has centred its campaign on the slogan “droves”, a play on Netanyahu’s controversial 2015 warning that the electorate must vote for Likud to counter Palestinian citizens of Israel, who were “flocking to the polls”. At the time, Netanyahu’s scaremongering drew fierce condemnation yet, in an attempt to re-claim the phrase, Tibi and Odeh have appeared on posters in front of large party-coloured buses, promising high voter turnout on 9 April.
However, according to research conducted by the coalition — which was published by Israeli daily Haaretz last week — only 50 per cent of Palestinian citizens of Israel plan to vote in the election, a 19 per cent drop on 2015. A separate Haaretz article noted that, if all eligible Palestinian citizens turned out to vote, they could command as many as 20 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, a sizable bloc given that current polling figures put the leading party at around 30 seats. In all likelihood, though, the Arab-dominated parties are predicted to gain only 12 seats, barely retaining the 13 they currently hold, albeit in conjunction with the other Arab-Israeli alliance, Ra’am-Balad, which together made up the now-defunct Joint List.
Tibi acknowledges that the engagement of Arab-Israeli voters is a challenge. “At the moment, voters are mixed; with the passage of more racist laws, many do not see the utility of voting,” he admits. Yet he stresses that, in fact, “The opposite is necessary; with more seats in the Knesset we can push back against the tide of fascism, and we must. I anticipate that as the election draws nearer, more will realise the importance of voting.”
#IsraElex19: Israeli Elections 2019
His optimism is shared by his colleagues. Speaking to MEMO last week, Hadash’s Jewish representative, Ofer Cassif, said that while “some [voters] are in a dilemma over which party to choose and some are hesitating over whether to vote in the election at all,” it is exactly these people Hadash-Ta’al is focused on speaking with in the last few days of campaigning.
One thing that will work in Hadash-Ta’al’s favour is the differentiation it offers in regard to the status of Palestinians, within Israel as well as the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). Though some mainstream parties have tried to use the Nation-State Law to their political advantage – notably the head of the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) alliance, Benny Gantz, who promised to “fix” the law but provided no explanation as to what this would involve – virtually none have discussed Israel’s 50-year-long occupation of the West Bank, its siege of the Gaza Strip or the possibility of a resolution to the conflict.
“Virtually every party has tweeted or created ads showing how ‘hard’ they will be on Palestinians,” Tibi explains. “They are obsessed with us, [but] none of the major parties speak any longer about freedom for Palestinians. They talk only of how they intend to crush us.” The Arab coalitions, he points out, are the only parties that support freedom and equality. “These are values that are important not only to us but also to the rest of the world.”
Tibi is right to say that the world is watching. Late last month, Israel bombed the already-besieged Gaza Strip in what many saw as an attempt by election candidates to prove their security credentials. For Netanyahu it was an inconvenience, dragging him back from the US to manage the situation. This caused him to miss the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington DC, where he was slated to celebrate his “achievements” as Prime Minister, including the freshly-cooked-up US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. Right-wing ministers, meanwhile, used the air strikes on Gaza to call for everything from re-occupation of the Strip to targeted assassinations and full-scale war.
Nevertheless, the perhaps unintended consequence of the Gaza bombing was that it focused international attention on the Israeli election and the increasingly-emboldened right wing that has dominated its agenda. Tibi sees this dominance as a product of international, and specifically US, policy towards Israel. “[US President Donald] Trump and Netanyahu are fulfilling the same right-wing agenda,” he explains: “This is why Netanyahu must be sent the message that he cannot continue to violate international law and get away with it.”
The veteran Arab MK also highlights the fact that President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, his decision to move the US embassy to the Holy City and, more recently, to recognise the Golan Heights as belonging to Israel, have set a precedent for similar unilateral actions in the future. “Many MKs are bragging that these recognitions pave the way for Israel annexing the West Bank without consequences,” he notes.
One MK who expressed this view was controversial right-wing MK Bezalel Smotrich of the Union of Right Wing Parties (URWP), who only hours after Trump announced his Golan decision tweeted: “President Trump, thank you. For 52 years, we have succeeded in the West Bank […] It is the time to recognise our sovereignty [there]. God willing, we will work to achieve this soon. We hope to see your support, too.”The URWP is just one of the many right-wing factions that could bolster a Netanyahu government if he is re-elected next week. Given the strength of this right-wing bloc, and the absence of allies that plagues Netanyahu’s main rival Gantz, does Tibi see anything other than a fourth-consecutive Netanyahu government being formed after 9 April?
“There is a possibility of a non-Netanyahu government, but it requires voters to reject the tide of fascism,” Tibi replies. “Having yet another Netanyahu government will be a continuation of the same policies of discrimination and racism. We will see a continued shift towards fascism, more settlements, more demolitions of Palestinian homes and a continued siege of Gaza.”
Ahmad Tibi sees Likud’s slogan — “It’s either Bibi or Tibi” — which juxtaposes Netanyahu’s nickname with his own surname to stir right-wing voters’ anti-Palestinian sensibilities, as evidence that an alternative exists. “Netanyahu has adopted this slogan to show, once again, that Arab citizens of the state are a ‘threat’. [Yet] this message [also] shows that there is an alternative to ‘Bibi’ — which is me — an alternative that supports freedom and equality rather than occupation and discrimination.”
With only days to go until the country goes to the polls, observers need not wait long to find out if Tibi’s campaign has been a success. “Netanyahu is ideologically opposed to Palestinian freedom and this is why he must be ousted,” he concludes. Rational, decent people would find it hard to disagree.