Nov 08 2016
By Daoud Kuttab
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud-led coalition opened the winter session of the Israeli Knesset with a decision by coalition members to walk out every time a member of the Joint List — a unified slate of predominantly Arab parties — speaks. The move, initiated by hard-liner Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman, came as a punishment for Arab Israeli members of Knesset who did not attend former Israeli President Shimon Peres’ funeral on Sept. 30.
In response, all 13 members of the Joint List walked out of the Knesset when Netanyahu addressed the session on Oct. 31. The decision of the Likud-led coalition has little more than symbolic value, and it is not expected to last more than a week, according to multiple sources contacted by Al-Monitor.
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Aida Tuma-Suleiman, one of the leading members of the Joint List, expressed her bewilderment at Netanyahu’s hypocrisy in regards to Peres. “When Peres was alive, Netanyahu was constantly inciting against him.”
Tuma-Suleiman believes that the “Israeli prime minister takes advantage of every opportunity to slander us and, through us, the Arab population in Israel.” She added, “He doesn’t have the right to punish us for expressing our political beliefs. Netanyahu doesn’t care about us staying away from the funeral of Peres; he simply uses every occasion he finds to attack us.”
Smadar Perry, senior reporter at the widely circulated Yedioth Ahronoth, told Al-Monitor that the absence of the Arab Joint List Knesset members at Peres’ funeral was a mistake. “They infuriated not only the Israeli Jews, but their own constituency.”
The veteran Israeli journalist was more critical of the list leaders such as Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi. “I don’t have great expectations from Hanin Zoabi or Jamal Zahalkeh. I was expecting something more clever from Tibi and Odeh. If Abu Mazen [President Mahmoud Abbas] is attending, they should be more sophisticated by sending a different message.”
Tuma-Suleiman, however, rejected these attacks. “I know that Jewish Israelis were unhappy with our decision not to attend the Peres funeral. Our political compass should not be whether we please this group or that, but whether we are true to our principles, our political approach and our public,” she said. All 13 members of the Joint List decided to boycott the Peres funeral.
Tuma-Suleiman, who is the only Arab member to chair a Knesset committee (the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality), did admit to Al-Monitor that she and her parliamentarian colleagues have failed to make a breakthrough into the Israeli public, saying, “We need to make serious advancements into the Israeli media in order to explain our positions to the Israeli public.”
Despite the mutual boycotts between Netanyahu and the Arab Knesset members, the Joint List was able to table a resolution on the first day of the Knesset’s opening session. Reut Mor, a media adviser to Odeh, the head of the Joint List, told Al-Monitor that a resolution initiated by the Joint List regarding Holocaust survivors was passed on the first reading on Oct. 31.
Seth Frantzman, the Jerusalem Post’s opinion page editor, told Al-Monitor that the recriminating boycotts will not last. “The issue of the boycott seems a bit silly. The populist right and center are just using this as an excuse to show they stand up to the Joint List,” he said.
However, Frantzman warned that the societal division is likely to stay. “The boycotts will fade away, but they symbolize a real boycott in the views of the ‘other’ in society — the chasm of understanding between the different groups. That won’t fade,” he concluded.
The Israeli editor is referring to the division that is widening between citizens of Israel — whether they are Jews or Arabs, Ethiopians, religious or secular. Conflicts between various groups reflect a high level of intolerance in Israeli society.
There is no doubt that the mutual boycotts between the Likud-led coalition and the Arab Joint List and the recriminatory language that has followed is a reflection of deep fractures that don’t bode well for the relationship of citizens in Israel. The ruling powers in Israel are clearly trying to integrate Palestinian citizens of Israel into the Israeli economy, which is to its favor.
The ruling Israeli right-wing powers, however, are drawing the line when it comes to collective rights and national identity. The idea that they can buy their way into forcing Palestinian citizens of Israel to submit to these Israeli dictates are clearly the focus of the current political struggle — and no one knows how it will come out. The continuity and survival of a 13-member Arab bloc in the 120-member Knesset can’t be easily erased. That this unity would last this long has clearly caught the Israeli political establishment off guard. The Joint List won 13 seats during the March 2015 elections.
By staying united and refusing to bow to pressure, the Arab Joint List has shown unprecedented resilience and strength. No effort to boycott or sideline the Arab legislatures, who represent 20% of the citizens of Israel, will succeed as long as they stay united.
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