Arab Israelis step up political activity


For the first time in Israeli history, the Arab parties in the Israeli Knesset have taken an independent initiative which forced (or allowed) the Rabin government to back down on immediate plans to confiscate 53 hectares of Arab land in East Jerusalem.
These events have galvanised Arab political activity generally in Israel. The Islamic Movement has long been active in Israeli Arab politics. While its policy is not to stand for national elections in Israel, it holds a majority in a number of municipalities and local bodies.
A key legal impediment to effective political participation by Israeli Arabs is that it is illegal to stand for the Knesset on a policy which denies that Israel is the state of the Jewish people all over the world.
Last week, the Islamic Movement held a national meeting to consider future directions. Reversing current policy, it decided not to boycott the next parliamentary elections. It gave permission to its supporters to vote but decided not to send direct representatives to the Knesset. With a potential 15% of the vote, Arab Israelis could become a much more powerful force within Israeli politics than they have been to date.
Dr AHMED TIBI is a leading Israeli Arab, an adviser to Yasser Arafat and a key force in moves to set up a new Arab party in Israel. VIVIENNE PORZSOLT of Green Left Weekly interviewed him.

What do you think is the significance of these developments?

For the first time, after a long period of failure, the Arab members of the Knesset proposed a no-confidence motion that enabled Mr Rabin and Mr Peres to get down from the high trees they had climbed up.

For the first time, the Arab members were involved in a very important and difficult decision in the life of the Israeli society and community, and especially in the very delicate issue of Jerusalem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was possible only because Likud and the right-wing members joined the Arab members in the no-confidence motion.

The importance is that the Arab members for a while took their partial legitimacy in Israeli politics and I think it can be a good example for what the future should be. I think the Likud will not join the Arab members again in any issue which has a national and political background. Maybe they will join the Arab members in an economic or social no-confidence motion.

It is still a possibility which should be taken into consideration, and I think that the next elections will be very, very important. If the Arab sector finds the right way to achieve more in this election, their political weight and position will be felt more and more.'

I think that if [the Islamic Movement] participates massively in the elections, it will increase our power in the Knesset and our political status.

There are reports in the press that you are going to lead a list of candidates for the next Knesset elections. If such a party did emerge, what might it do differently from the current two Arab parties?

I hope that we would not make the same failures that these parties did in the last 10 or 20 years, because we achieved almost nothing fundamental. There is still a very big gap in equality between Jews and Arabs inside Israel.

There are a lot of issues like the imbalance in the budgets of the local councils, Jews and Arabs, the issue of the Islamic properties which are not being put under the control of the Muslims but under the control of Jewish officials.

The most important thing is the status of Arab citizens of Israel. Israel is under law the state of the Jews. I think the definition of Israel should be changed to be the state of all its citizens. It is a basic element of democracy.

We are working to change the law that makes it illegal for anyone to stand for the Knesset denying that Israel is the state of the Jews all over the world.

What are the chances of achieving this?

It will depend on the number of seats we and the Jewish peace camp achieve in the next elections.

Do you think Meretz [the dovish members of the Labour Coalition] might support such a move ?

Yes, I think so, yes.