Dec 31, 2009
BTL interviews MK Azmi Bishara the chair of the National Democratic Assembly / Tajamu
Q: In light of Sharon’s policies and his deliberate escalation of the situation regarding assassinations, arrests, closures and demolitions etc. – policies which have already brought about the end to the cease-fire and are destined to make the Road Map fail, what are Sharon’s real plans?
A: In the short run I think Sharon’s plan is to win time without making any real concessions until the American elections. But this [short term consideration] would presuppose that Sharon is only a party politician, which of course he is not. He’s a strategist and what I just said integrates into his long term policy which he believes in. He believes that it is possible to impose and to dictate by using power. He believes in power politics, and that you can change political structures like he did in 1982 in Lebanon.
He believes Israel cannot annex the West Bank and Gaza with their populations. He also firmly believes that the Palestinians should not get the West Bank and Gaza within the borders of the 4th of June 1967. He thinks it’s not necessary to give them this if Israel knows how to use power. We should remember that at the end of the 1970s, Sharon was one of the ministers who supported Begin in the issue of autonomy (in the West Bank and Gaza). When King Hussein declared the so called ‘disengagement’ from the West Bank in 1988, [i.e. when Jordan withdrew its claims to the West Bank and Gaza] Sharon revived the autonomy plan in a series of articles he wrote.
I think he still believes in these models but there are two changes there, which we can discuss how deep they are: one change is that he is willing to call the “autonomy” a “state”. Namely, to accept the idea of Palestinian “statehood”, but without changing the areas which have been designated for autonomy. Sharon believed in autonomy in the densely populated areas that were called the areas of “territorial compromise” by the Yigal Alon plan (though in that plan, autonomy was to be given to Jordan). Sharon still believes in “demographic separation” with these areas, but he is willing to call this entity “state”.
Second, Sharon understands the need to cooperate more with the United States, and to actually integrate within its strategy; not to say “no” to the United States, but try to change its decisions from within. That’s why he accepted – without really accepting - but at least nominally accepted the Road Map. He knows that he cannot work with the United States the way he worked with it in Lebanon [in 1982] where the relationship between him, and the US administration representatives were actually very tense. At that time, the United States was actually turning against him because it had not been informed of these policies to “change the regime” [in Lebanon] and because Sharon went further [in the invasion and its goals] than the United States was willing to digest. In the past, he believed that Israel should put the US in front of a fait accompli. Now he understands very well that it doesn’t work. He is older and riper concerning international politics.
These are the two changes to the model he believed in the past: a “state” and total coordination with the US.
Now in the framework of the cooperation with the United States, Sharon needs to convince the US that the [Palestinian] “state” should not be “final status”, and should not be in the entire West Bank and Gaza, but rather on around 42% of the West Bank. Furthermore, it should be established over the course of a transitional period of at least 15 years – not three years [as stipulated in the Road map] or even five years. The longer the better. This means that the Palestinians don’t have to give up the final status issues like they were asked to in Camp David by Barak. This was considered a mistake [to ask them to give them up] and they can be discussed “later” in the second generation. [e.g. the Right of Return, Jerusalem]
That is what the man believes, and I don’t think the man has anything more to suggest to the Palestinians.
Now, Sharon knows very well that a state on 40% of the West Bank and Gaza is not viable. He believes it needs to be connected in a confederate manner to Jordan and is pushing in this way.
His policies in Palestinian-Israeli politics are a power politics; a politics of pressure, to reshape the Palestinian political and security elite. Not necessarily the leadership, (because it is not a leadership anymore) but to reshape that elite that will be able to “give and take” in the direction of implementing what I have just said. I think that's what he’s after. And he is very consistent with that. I have been preparing a book in Arabic about Israel and Israeli politics for the Arab world, and so I have been going back to Sharon’s development from the 1970s and ‘80s. His ideas about the Palestinian issue have not changed since the 1980s.
Q: To what extent are his policies supported by the United States?
A: Well it depends on what we mean when we say the "United States." It is better to say the “current US administration”, because traditionally US administrations in the past and the US establishment wouldn't like his politics. But the way of thinking of the current US administration and the neo-conservatives who rose to power in that administration, is very close to Sharon’s way of thinking. This includes not only their rise after the elections in the United States, but also their rise after the events of September 11, 2001. The increase and influence of the neo-conservatives thereafter made the United States not only more open to accept Sharon’s policies but also in a way globalized Israeli security doctrines. For example, "the pre-emptive strike" or the "preventative war". These conceptions are actually Israeli conceptions, including understanding “terrorism” as the “main enemy”.
Israel's central doctrine was to divide the world into "terrorists” and "anti-terrorists". It always wanted to divide the world this way so that it could be on the side of Russia, India and the United States together. "Everybody is fighting terrorism". This enables Israel to break its isolation. Israel is on one side and the entire Arab world is on the other. This division is very important for Israel, as well as very helpful. The fact that the United States accepted the division of the world between “terrorists” and “those who fight terrorists” – was a breakthrough for Israel internationally, as well as in the United States itself.
This made the alignment between Israel and the United States look more like an alignment between the Israeli Right-wing and the United States, which was not the case in the past. Usually the translator of US interests “into Hebrew” was the Labor party – not the Likud. Even when [the late PM Menahem] Begin was accepted at Camp David, there was a lot of tension between him and Carter. Likewise, there was tension between Bush and Shamir. There was always tension between the Likud and the US establishment. Sharon personally was a persona non-grata in the United States. But now the US administration is leading the US in the direction of the Israeli Right-wing – no longer with [the state of] Israel itself. This is a new situation.
Sharon as the Son of the Zionist Labor Establishment
Q: This raises the question as to what extent Sharon's polices are really that much different from those of the Israeli Labor party?
A: It depends. Historically, if you take the Labor party of Moshe Dayan or Golda Meyer, or Ben Gurion, you would say that Sharon represents continuity with this stream. In this sense, Sharon may claim their heritage and find historical clues in them to his own development. He may say “The way I talk, is the same way Ben Gurion talked.” And this of course is true. He is not a revisionist. He does not come from the Jabotinski tradition [of revisionist Zionism which is the ideological underpinnings of the Likud party.]
But the [historical] Labor party went at least in two to three directions: Rabin could claim continuity [with the historic Labor party]. So could Barak. The question then is, what is the difference between him and Rabin? Or between him and Barak? Or between him and the historical Labor party?
Sharon is no question, a son of the Labor party historically - a son of the way of thinking of Mapai [of which the Labor party is its offspring]. At the time of Unit 101 [an infamous unit in the early 1950s responsible for massacring Palestinian villagers who attempted to return to their lands after 1948] and during his service in the Parachutes Brigade, Sharon was closer militarily and in his ways of thinking to that of Moshe Dayan.
Ben Gurion made a lot of statements praising Sharon as the Hebrew soldier - the quintessential Hebrew soldier Ben Gurion always wanted Israel to build - the sabra [the image of the "new Israeli generation"- the assumed prime of Zionism], the “courageous commander who leads his battalion physically in battle” - and who doesn’t respect conventions of war. No "minority mentalities" etc.
You have statements of Ben Gurion that are unbelievable about [praising] Sharon. But you also have statements from Golda Meyer branding him as a liar - a man who doesn’t respect truth or hierarchies, who incites soldiers against officers, and officers against political leaders, and political leaders against each other. The man is unscrupulous. He made his way into politics upon the corpses of others, and uses lies in a very Machiavellian way.
Now, if you take the concept of "territorial compromise" - this is a Labor concept, and a concept he is ready to accept. Likewise with the concept of "Demographic separation” [from the Palestinians] – this is also a Labor concept. Even the wall which is now being built – many revisionists in the Likud are against it but Sharon eventually accepted it. Many Etzel guys [a reference to the revisionist Zionist pre-1948 paramilitary unit] whose fathers are from the Likud do not accept the wall because it is "dividing Eretz Israel”. Sharon has no problem dividing "Eretz Israel." He is a man of bull dozers. This also comes from Labor.
Sharon doesn’t believe in symbols so much. I mean, I remember the big fuss about the fact that Sharon refused to shake the hand of Arafat. But this is because he wants to finish Arafat politically – not symbolically. Sharon was ready to meet Arafat once – in 1974, even before Labor was ready to meet him in 1977. The meeting was supposed to take place in Paris but fell through because Arafat refused to meet him and instead was going to send Issam Sartawi [a top Fateh liaison who was eventually assassinated by the Israeli Mossad].
[…] Sharon is a practical man. The fact that he can go out and say “the people in the West Bank and Gaza are under occupation [as he did inside a recent Likud party convention] says something. I mean, a Likudnik could not say that. But he does. This is the Labor mentality. The Palestinians [leadership] were dragged into a kind of optimism when Sharon said “do you want to keep 4 million Palestinians under occupation? – It is occupation – you may not like the word but it is occupation." Now he didn’t say the "Occupied Territories" - he was clear about this. What he meant was that the people are under occupation and not the land. The land, he is not ready to give up. That's why he seeks demographic separation and not separation from the land.
But anyway this is Labor lexicon – not Likud. Like the old Labor he is ready to "accept the Road Map" and to speak its language etc, while at the same time, he makes the promises to “uproot”, to build settlements etc. Even someone like Ghandi [Rehavam Zeevi, a former Israeli minister from the ultra-right wing Moledet party, assassinated in 2001 by the PFLP] always claimed that he [Zeevi] was a continuity of Mapai. He never said he was a Likudnik. He was secular, pragmatic, and always quoted people from Mapai in history. He said for instance that "transfer is an idea of Ben Gurion”. Lately I came by a quotation from Moshe Dayan from 1952 where he says "the destiny of the Palestinians inside Israel [i.e. ‘48 Palestinians] will be like the rest. We should transfer them.” This was 1952 when they were already citizens [of the state of Israel].
So it’s very interesting. Sharon’s mentality – his lexicon, his words, his actions, his way of thinking are all from the Hagana [the Labor Zionist pre-1948 paramilitary]. It’s the Zionist establishment language, and that’s what he is. This is also why he has more understanding with Shimon Peres [Labor] than with Netanyahu [Likud]. He feels more at home with people like Peres. This is his type. He is a killer. He is dangerous.
I recently wrote an article for Al Ahram which will hopefully soon be translated into English. It relates to the first Arab women that Sharon killed. The women from Qatanneh village were going to the village well to get water which incidentally was on the other side of the Green Line. The women didn’t know that. They were just going to their well. And the Israelis had known and tolerated this. The only one who did not tolerate this was Sharon. He was watching them with his troops, and then ordered them to open fire, killing three of them. The story was related in a book written by Sharon’s colleagues who were with him at the time, but I have also discovered their names in the village. He was using the women to train his soldiers on how to shoot at still and moving targets. It’s unbelievable. He was 24 years old.
We are speaking about a murderer
Q: I would like to change subject a little and to ask you to discuss the current Intifada. Of course everyone is aware of the Intifada as an anti-occupation movement. But to what extent in your opinion does this Intifada represent elements of attempting to address critical issues of the Palestinian national movement from within and the damaging effects of the Oslo process upon the trajectory of the national movement - to the extent that the Intifada has a subtext to it that represent a loss of faith in Oslo process and the PA leadership as a whole?
A: We don’t know exactly when it picked up in the way you frame it. There is no question that this [the internal question] is in the subtext of the Intifada, and that is why people who want now to declare the failure of the Intifada are calling to go back to Oslo or even worse than Oslo. People who believed in Oslo have waited all along to declare the failure of the Intifada.
Still I think that the situation is contradictory, because at the beginning of the Intifada the PA or elements within it seemed to be interested in and ready to push the people out to the streets to protest against Barak's policies or to give support to the Palestinian leadership which was isolated after Camp David. There is no question that in the first weeks after Camp David, the Palestinian leadership was isolated internationally because they had said “no” to Clinton, which was considered "unacceptable" internationally.
But the same Palestinian leadership did not want to say “no” and in order not to have to say no they did not want Camp David in the first place. They wanted to continue with the phases plan [of the Oslo process] and didn’t want to be faced with the package deal of Barak and Clinton that said “either, or”. They could imagine what the repercussions of saying no to Clinton were.
So in that sense, there was a gap or at least, there was no coordination between the leadership's means and goals, and the real results. They wanted people out into the streets to support them in their position regarding issues like East Jerusalem and settlements (although it seems that they accepted blocks of settlements [i.e. that Israel could annex them] as well as this concept of "territorial exchange" [i.e. exchanging land inside the West Bank for a desert lands inside Israel near the southern border of Gaza, and which any how Sharon has begun to settle with Jews]. But we don’t know yet [exactly what was and wasn’t accepted].
Irrespective, the [Palestinian] leadership did not want this crisis and they cannot forgive Barak for pushing it to this crisis. But when the PA called for help internationally, and called for the Palestinian people to give them support, it was the position of the Palestinian people that came out and not only the position of the leadership. From this point on, they [the PA] could not control the process anymore - the process which was unleashed by the Intifada.
Now it got out of their hands in two directions: First was the Islamic movement and the factions that were never supporters of Oslo. This was their opportunity to go out to the streets. Second, you had the popular dimensions of the Fateh movement which were divided into two: There were those leaders of the first Intifada who were not given shares in the leadership [once Oslo was signed] and hence used this opportunity to express their anger against the leadership who came from outside - not because they agreed or did not agree to Camp David, but because they felt that they were excluded by them [the PA]. Second, there were also more authentic elements [in Fateh] that were closer to the people and who genuinely did not agree with what was going on [with Oslo and the trajectory of the PA.]
Anyway, these elements united and became explosive.
On a third level, there was also of course Israel’s very harsh reaction which was entirely unexpected. Barak used planes [to suppress the Intifada] for the first time since the 1967 War. This produced a reaction that was of a much wider nature than the opposition [of the anti-Oslo factions] for example of Hamas, or Islamic Jihad. I can prove this: people joined the factions in order to make suicide bombs – not made suicide bomb attacks because they were in the factions. There is this idea that people in Hamas make suicide bomb attacks. No. Many people want to make suicide bomb attacks to revenge certain things and that’s why they join Hamas – in order to carry their desires out. And if Fateh will take them, they will go to Fateh as well. They just ask in the mosque or around and say, "do you know someone who will send me [on a military mission]". And then no one answers him until 6 months later when a response comes back. The person is then approached by someone who says “do you still want to carry out an operation…”
This kind of dynamic developed because of the terrible kind of oppression, and the closures etc. People wanted to revenge and wanted Israeli society to pay a price – and not only for Palestinian society to pay the price. This was called in the first year of the Intifada "the balance of fear". It was felt that this kind of action was perhaps the only weapon the Palestinians had to deter Israel. Many people at that time believed in this because they felt that they didn’t have anything more to loose.
Then there was the question of the Palestinian security apparatuses. Yasser Arafat wanted to hold the stick at both ends: first of all, not to loose the Intifada to Hamas and to make sure his own people were there. On the other hand, he did not want to totally loose the way of Oslo and to have that option open. That is why the security apparatus as apparatuses did not fight. Despite the fact that they were bombed, raided, destroyed – as apparatuses, they never fought. Ramallah was invaded and they never fought. Jenin was invaded and they did not fight. Those Palestinains from the security apparatuses who participated in the battle of Jenin were individuals who left the apparatuses and joined the resistance. If people from the security apparatuses integrated into the Intifada, they did so as individuals.
This is very important: Ramallah was invaded and the security apparatuses were at home in their pajamas. What did that mean? What kind of apparatuses were they supposed to be then? These questions are meaningful for the future of the Palestinians, for their collective memory, and for their sense of trust relationship [with a body like the PA].
At the same time, it also meant that individuals from the security forces who joined in the struggle, come from the people and had the will [to fight and to resist]. But not the system – not the apparatuses. The people themselves. So you can’t say that they [all those who work in the PA] are traitors, but you can say something about the system as a system, and [about] its significance and function.
In this sense, the Intifada raised all these issues and did away with a lot of illusions. But it has not yet - I'm sorry to say - presented any kind of alternative way. The dynamic that I have explained pushed the people into two directions: either the rejectionist direction of the reality (which includes being ready to die in order to make the enemy pay the price), or the people who want all this [the Intifada] to be proven a failure and preach that we are defeated. These people want the Palestinians to conclude from this so-called defeat, that we should go back to accept what we did not accept in the past.
This duality is preventing any real alternative strategy to be developed from the Intifada, which is what we always wanted from it.
Q: Assuming that Israel is not interested in giving up the West Bank and is in fact actively engaged in creating a collection of cantons, where do the 1948 Palestinians fit into Israel’s comprehensive plans?
A: We know that from the Israeli side, we are already integrated into their answer. When Israelis think of demographic separation, they think about us too. They conclude that if demographic separation is not implemented, the Palestinians from both sides of the Green Line will become one unit. They also have us in mind when they put up the barriers, [the walls] because if there is continuity and inter-mixing [between ’67 and ’48 Palestinians] it is very hard to control the radicalization and the transition of young people - at least as individuals - over to armed resistance. Even if there is no radicalization of the [1948 Palestinian] masses they [Israel] cannot control the issue with individual young people.
So this is very important for them. They have given a lot of thought to the Palestinians who are Israeli citizens after the events of October 2000 [i.e. the uprising of Palestinians inside Israel], and we believe that they have reached some decisions, and are already fulfilling some plans concerning the issue.
They for example, have diagnosed us [Tajamu’ party] as a danger and have tried with all their means to fight against us. The fact that we had a strategy and a clear vision, meant that we could stand up to them, keep our movement together and maintain it among the Arab minority inside Israel. But this is only one example.
Persecution and Racism Escalate
They [the Israeli establishment] know very well for example, that the Arabs in Israel are totally dependent upon the Israeli economy. There is no Arab economy in Israel. So they used the general deterioration in the economy to scare the Arabs. They used the fact that Arabs are mostly wage workers inside Israel to incite the Arab community against the leadership as though to get the people to think: “At least you have some rights in Israel. There is a failure in the Arab world; a failure in the Intifada – where are these people leading you. You better keep these rights."
Israel is very interested in fighting the stream that is trying to unite the Arabs in Israel into one Arab identity. They are trying to divide them into at least three, four, five identities, thereby making it demographically easier to absorb and co-opt them into the Israeli system, the same way they did to the Druze. They think it is a very successful model to extend for example to Christians, or Bedouins etc. To create minorities within the minority. To forge alliances with the minority against the majority in the minority itself. They invented this model and have been very aggressive with it.
They bring out their so-called Arab “academics" who they show regularly on Israeli television and radio to attack us. They also work with people who are dependent upon them economically – for example the local Arabic newspapers which are all dependent upon advertisements from Israeli ministries. For a time, they tried to deprive them of their advertisements in order to co-opt them into towing the line of incitement against the national movement inside. Theoretically, the papers can remain patriotic; practically, they must be against everything that is patriotic and democratic among the Arabs inside Israel. They always encourage skepticism: against struggle, against work, attempting to destroy any idea or movement which is interested in building something through struggle.
In these conditions it was a miracle that we succeeded to actually double our seats in the elections. After Iraq; after this psychological depression; after the fact that there is no attractive Arab political project; after the fact that we are dependent economically on Israel; and that ‘there are no options for the Intifada’; and that the Abu Mazen/ Dahlan [PA] leadership that is now sitting with [Minister of Defense] Mofaz like friends while we claim they are war criminals - all this made it very hard to mobilize people for struggle.
We are a minority which lives as Israeli citizens with Israeli rights with Israeli institutions, in the Israeli economy. But it is very important to maintain and keep the national Arab identity alive; to give it democratic depth; to keep the solidarity with the West Bank and Gaza going on; to keep up our cultural interactions with the Arab world – through our web site, through our newspapers, through our theoretical and political writings. Because in the end, we believe there is a contradiction with the Arabs in Israel if they remain Arabs and Palestinians and organized in the right way. In the end, this contradiction will be the contradiction of the future. This is what we are thinking about.
Today we face a very harsh power politics inside Israel. They are now using the situation after the Gulf war to implement things which they did not implement in the past - for example destroying and demolishing houses [among the ’48 Palestinians in Israel] in quantities which have never been seen before - ten in one day in the Negev. It’s as if they are testing us to see what our reaction will be.
We [Tajamu’] are there and are trying to get the people out [to protest]. But our people are saying that they are finding it hard to mobilize the people. Sometimes we have to do it alone. Last time, [Tajamu' MK] Jamal Zahalqa was alone facing the bulldozer between Baqa el Sharqiyya [inside the West Bank] and Baqa el Gharbiyeh [inside the Green Line], and the people were looking on. There were hundreds of people there, but they didn’t know exactly what to do.
Israel is trying to strike at our self-confidence concerning. But if you do not resist them, you encourage them to do more and you acquiesce to the politics of power. You have to convince Israel that the politics of force does not work with you, by not obeying, not by obeying. This is the challenge that we face and we are trying to give the people a better example of how to behave in these times of crisis.
This is the most Right-wing Knesset since 1948. The atmosphere in the parliament is overtly racist – no question about it. The new thing is that they don’t hide it [anymore]. Racists today go around and say they are racist. There is an automatic and immediate majority against everything that we suggest in the Knesset- even if it is the most banal civil rights issue. They don’t want us to go back to our constituency with any achievements. They want the people to understand that "through these people [the current ’48 Palestinian leadership], you will get nothing. If you have some rights, it will not be through these people, but will be through us – through the Likud, through Labor.”
The incitement against us does not stop either. People like Minister of Education Limor Livnat [Likud] will openly use racist categories in the Knesset. It wasn’t like this in the last two or three Knessets. And it’s not like they are "loosing their nerves”. It stems from too much self-confidence as a result of the fact that they do not anticipate any criticism from the US. They know very well that they are warmly embraced unconditionally by the White House and the Congress, and so they do what they want. And they pick up on the model of internal policies of the United States in its “war against terror” saying "Even in the United States the concept of civil rights is relativized.” They are totally unrestrained.
It makes it very hard – not only for a progressive Palestinian democrat who is not willing to be co-opted, or to give up, or to flatter. It’s difficult for any activist in issues of equality and civil rights.
’48 Palestinians and the Question of Palestine
Q: At least since Oslo, the question of the ‘48 Palestinians has been left completely outside the equation of the broader Palestinian national question. What is your position to that?
A: The logic of Oslo was the logic of accepting the West Bank and Gaza as “Palestine”, and addressing the question of what to do about the occupation of these lands. It was not about solving the whole Palestinian issue. Now, whether the Palestinians in Israel were worried or disillusioned [about their non-inclusion in Oslo] … I don’t think the Palestinians in Israel ever demanded that the PLO include them. The majority of the Palestinians in Israel were [at the time] voting for Israeli [political] parties and running for elections. There were of course some Palestinians [inside Israel] who thought they were part of the PLO and who joined the political factions - but we are talking about a few hundreds. Some of these people are still in jail today, and most have joined Tajamu' while in jail. So this tendency does exist, though in general, there wasn’t a demand for the Palestinians in Israel to be included in Oslo.
If you ask me retro-actively whether this was wrong, I will tell you that the motivation of many of the Arabs in Israel was – “Leave us alone. We want to be Israeli citizens.” The Communist Party was leading this direction calling for the equality of Palestinians inside Israel. But it is [also] better that they were not included [in Oslo]. And I said this at the time: including the Arabs in Israel in negotiations would have meant subjecting them to the balance of power between the PLO and Israel. This will transform our issue from a civil issue inside Israel (which is [calling for] equal citizenship etc.) into an external issue caught within the (im)balance of forces. The Arabs in Israel will then be the weakest point in the negotiations. They may be used not only for “land swaps” but for "population swaps" – for instance "we [Israel] get the Arabs in Israel and you get the settlers.”
This is because the logic of the negotiations of Oslo was not “negotiations between a national liberation movement and an occupying power”, but between two sides. The whole logic was a logic of drawing symmetries and equations. It was not a decolonization process, but a negotiated process between two sides: “two violent sides”, “two radicals”, “two moderates”. Everything was a kind of [false] symmetry.
If Oslo was [the achievement of] the national liberation movement and its struggle this would be another story. But the case of ’48 Palestinians as citizens is stronger than their case as a subject of negotiations between "two sides" of "Palestinians and Israelis" when the balance of power is totally to the benefit of Israel. We would have lost from this. The Palestinian cause would loose, the Palestinians inside Israel would loose – everyone would loose.
Our strong point is the fact that we struggle in the framework of citizenship, of being “inside” - not an issue which belongs to the "other [Palestinian] side". That is not a "national liberation movement" – it is the "other side". And it is the weaker side in the negotiations. This is the logic of Oslo. And I don’t think that we should have been a part of this logic.
Tajamu’ and Collective Rights
Q: Tajamu' is always calling for collective rights as a national minority inside Israel. Can you explain for us precisely what that means?
A: Any old-fashioned classical liberal would say that collective rights is a nonsensical term because all rights are individual and if you say “collective rights” you relativize the individual rights inside this collective. We say no. We say these are two things which complement each other. One individual right is the right to have a national identity, and that this should be able to be maintained through what we call cultural rights.
Liberalism developed in three phases. One phase was the phase of “civil rights”. The second phase was when ex-socialist, ex-leftist and leftists tried to find a compromise with liberalism by adding “social rights” to the rights of the individual. Now we have “cultural rights”. This is the third development we are trying to add to the rights of the individual – civil rights, social rights, cultural rights.
Israel does not believe in social rights and in cultural rights. It so happens that there is an attempt to make a bill of rights inside Israel which will include social rights. Whether it will pass or not, I don’t know: Israel seems to be going in the opposite direction – in the direction of capitalism, giving up social rights it maintained for a long time.
As a national minority, we are saying "We have group rights and cultural rights". I can't accept for example that the Minister of Education who may be from the National Religious Party will determine what kind of Arab history I will study, or what kind of curriculum will be taught in my schools. The curriculum in the Arab schools should be Arab, and be determined by Arabs.
But this is not the only thing. We also demand to be able to represent ourselves as Arabs in all institutions of this country that make planning – particularly planning of lands - not only so our land is not confiscated, but so we have a say concerning the future of these lands and what will be built there. What kind of industrial zones? What kind of development? etc. I mean, development inside Israel right now means Judaization. Development means bringing Jews and developing things for them. We are considered an obstacle on the way [to this “development”].
By demanding this and by working to develop other demands like this we help the Arabs in Israel maintain themselves as a national group. This is very important because we might express our opinion as individuals but we don’t do this as a group. What we are saying to the Arab public is, “Even if Israel does not accept this, we should behave this way. We should be building our institutions so that we can have a say and so that the world can hear us.”
There is a lot of discussion between us and the other Arab parties because some accuse us of being isolationists, of separatism of irredentism, of nationalism. We say: “we are democrats.” We invented the whole concept of the “state of all its citizens.” Thus on the one hand we do say “we want to be citizens”, but on the other we are challenging the [Jewish] state, saying: “We are a national group". Israel is dealing with us as though we are three religions, or as tribes. The only collective rights that we have in Israel are religious rights regarding how we marry or divorce etc” [through religious courts, as in the Jewish sector]. This is the only collective right that Israel recognizes. But we say “we have national rights as a minority.” They say, “you are not a national minority, you are group of [different] minorities.” That is why we are called "the minorities". We are not called "the national minority".
It is very important to raise these demands, as it is a kind of identity building. All identities are constructed. Training the people to demand these things is a process of identity construction. Even if you do not achieve some of the things, at least you present yourself as Arabs, and not as religions anymore.
This is very important for secularizing the population and for keeping a modernist identity to the Arabs in Israel - one that is institutionalized at the same time. A civil identity.
We are not nationalists in the sense that we are ideologically nationalist. Of course not. We are nationals, not nationalists. We are Arabs: that is what we are. But we are Arab progressive democrats. We believe in coexistence, and living with Jews. We are for organizing the Arab society in a progressive way. We are for equality between women and men. We are for social rights. We are actually a part of the anti-globalization movement. We are against all kinds of folklore, and authenticity nonsense. We are against fundamentalism. We are progressive democrats. But we also say "for God’s sake, there is something called an Arab identity." That’s all. I mean 95%...99% of the Jews –consider themselves Zionist. They consider themselves nationalists. We are not. What we are saying is "if we are not Arabs, we will become revisionists.” We have to keep the Arab identity. We do not believe that nationalism is an ideology. We think democracy is an ideology. We think liberalism is an ideology etc. But we think that the Arab minority in Israel has the right to organize itself as a national minority in order not to collapse into tribes – like they are trying now to do in Iraq.
Q: Given this conception, and given what you formerly said concerning the economic dependency of ’48 Palestinians in Israel to the Israeli economy, to what extent can you do this without addressing class dimensions?
A: It’s very hard. We do not think that we can separate the class struggle of the Arabs in Israel from the class struggle in general. The problem is that the class struggle in Israel is totally nationalized and Zionized. It’s divided between the poor and the so-called “aristocracy of the wage workers”, like for instance, the wage workers of the electricity company. [The electric company workers' committee is one of the "13 big committees" which the Histadrut backs.] This is the only case where I am for privatilization, because it is a monopole for the aristocracy of the proletariat. It’s not a proletariat any more. The people who work there are actually the owners. They work there and bring their sons to work there, and they are blocking any employment of Arabs. And they raise the prices when there is no competition. It’s a monopole: it’s not a case of socialism but of a capitalist bureaucracy – that’s all
Many things like this are blocking solidarity between Arab workers and Jewish workers. Arab workers are not integrated into the heavy industries. They are not in the weapon's industry; they are not in the airline industry. The  big committees of the workers do not include Arabs because Arabs are not employed in these industries.
But if you take the more professional trade unions – for example the trade unions of the teachers – the Arabs are there. And we do not suggest that the Arabs separate so they can make their own class struggle. It’s the same wages so they should make the same struggle.
In the end, the whole equality struggle of the Arabs in Israel - in any single question - is a kind of class struggle. Because the majority of Arabs in Israel are poor, and are under the poverty line. They compose 35% of the poor, and half of the poor children. Of course it is not organized as a class struggle, though it definitely integrates into the class struggle. At the same time it is not what dogmatic communists would call “class struggle”, because the big worker’s committees who are said to be “leading the class struggle” in this country, actually struggle for their own benefits as privileged groups that are exclusive and do not include Arabs at all.
Q: But to what extent does Tajamu' emphasize the development of class consciousness of 1948 Palestinians? There seems to be so much emphasis upon the cultural dimension.
A: That [the cultural dimension] is what is taken from us [our discourse] because that is what is new. But we have made a lot of demonstrations against unemployment in the Arab sector, yet nobody saw them of value to write about. We run a real office for helping unemployed workers and for giving workers advice as to how to get their rights. It’s very active in Nazareth, but nobody has heard of it [outside]. It’s as if it isn’t news. We are the only party that runs an office like this.
The Azmi Trials
Q: Can you tell us the status of your trials?
A: The one trial which had to do with my visits to Syria was thrown out by the court. The fact that the Knesset legislated a law preventing MKs from visiting enemy countries after I was put to trial meant that MKs were previously allowed to do so. Their problem wasn’t that I traveled to Syria, but that I traveled there without coordination [with the Israeli authorities]. This is what made them crazy. According to the law, any citizen is allowed to go to an enemy country if he coordinates. I wanted to go to Syria and to communicate with the Arab world. So they made a law now which prevents MKs from traveling without coordinating.
As to the other trial, [regarding the accusation of incitement and promoting violence against the state] we have not heard from the court since we made our case. The court gave the General Attorney and us three opportunities to answer each other. It was a long process, but I did not reverse any of the things that I said. I stood by them and I said what we believe. I believe they will throw this case out as well.
Q: To what extent do the more recent persecution of the Islamic movement fall within the same overall logic of political persecution of ’48 Palestinians and their leadership?
A: It’s the same logic, but it was easier for them [Israel] to persecute the Islamic movement than with us. Our secular democratic universal discourse makes it very hard for them because with me they have to decide: either they are democratic or they are Jewish. We were throwing one challenge to them after the other.
And of course we were already in the Knesset: we used this strategy. The Islamic movement is outside the Knesset. They called for boycotting the last elections, making themselves totally out [side of the establishment] now. This, together with the fact that there is now this attack against Islamic movements world wide, and which Israel integrates within, makes it difficult for them [the Islamic movement inside Israel] for example, to go to France or the US to find allies in their fight to keep the it legal.
But still, it’s the same process, though we and the Islamic movement used different strategies. I think our strategy was successful. And as a result of that, they probably have not given up [going after us – i.e. seeking to work for Tajamu’s banning from political activity]. They [the Israeli establishment] think that I shouldn’t be there, and some of them say it openly: "that the Supreme Court was wrong" [in not banning Tajamu’ from running for elections. See BTL February 2003 #20].
I think we are under surveillance and that they are waiting for the [right] opportunity. But we are behaving very wisely – and without giving up anything under these conditions. For instance in the past, we never really paid attention to the municipal elections. This year (on 28th October) we are going to post candidates in all the municipalities. We want to establish ourselves locally, among the communities. We used to say, "municipal elections are familial and tribal. As a national democratic party we have no place there.” We used to criticize the other parties for playing the tribal game and making coalitions with [extended] families etc.
But this time, because of this attack [from the establishment] we want to establish ourselves locally and to strike roots. We have to depend on ourselves and to do that by working in the communities gradually and carefully building a lot with young people. We are trying to build a movement for young people. This is now our challenge. This is the challenge – a real wide movement around the young – “the young Tajamu'” or something like that. It’s also very important for us to empower the women's movement. And eventually - though we haven’t discussed this yet - we will have to discuss the issue of the binationalism of the party. This is our greater challenge. Not to make a Jewish-Arab party, but to make a binational party. We will think about it, because if we want this land – leave the state… the land is binational.
Two States or a Bi-National State
Q: This flows into my last question. To what extent are you pushing the binational agenda in the context of the current circumstances whereby Israel controls entire historic Palestine from the river to the sea, and is developing a sophisticated apartheid regime with different forms of control across it. Isn’t it time to push this agenda?
A: There is no way to push it. Its time [will come] when this Palestinian leadership fails. Only when it fails. Today the discussion among them [the PA] is one of “who leads”. But it didn’t fail yet. There are no calls from the Palestinian side to the Tajamu' saying "come and have branches of the Tajamu' in the West Bank and Gaza. Let’s make a binational movement. Let’s cross the Green Line and make the same political organizations”. Before [this happens] its nonsense. Binationalism without social, political agents on the ground is an idea: an interview here, an article there. Are there masses – social movements - that are raising binationalism? I say no. There are not.
Q: But we are witnessing now a complete collapse of Palestinian national ideology and its strategies about attaining its own limited goals [for a state in '67 Occupied Territories]…?
A: Yes it’s true. In a recent article I published in Al Ahram and in Al Hayat, I said that the call for a Palestinian state is no longer a Palestinian slogan or a Palestinian project. The way the issue of a Palestinian state it is now raised is not the Palestinian state the Palestinian people ask for – its George Bush's Palestinian state, and Arik Sharon's Palestinian state – as I described it at the beginning of this interview. The Palestinian state is no longer a Palestinian national project. I was very clear about this. But let’s see what reactioins I get for that and what we can do further, because we have to move very slowly on this.
[…] The Intifada doesn't raise binationalism: the Intifada raises nationalism. The Intifada raises separation. It’s against occupation. It wants to separate and to have its own entity. The Israeli reaction to it is walls, separation. If you want binationalism you have to take the Israeli side into consideration. Binationalism cannot survive unless it is an Israeli -Palestinian project. If its only a Palestinian project, its not binationalism.
The logic of the Intifada would very much change if it became binational, with binational goals. Binational goals wouldn’t make suicide bombs against buses. And it's not only the Palestinian Authority. Among the Palestinian masses, the mood is still national. National – Islamic. Not binational.
The Right of Return
Q: I agree. But with the collapse of Oslo, you have the retreat to the basic tenets of the national movement: the right of return, the call for self-determination, the end to occupation. The question is, there seems to be a big lack of leadership as to harvesting what those goals might mean. I mean, if you are talking about the right of return, in a serious way then you have to begin to think seriously about other options [other than two states].
A: No one is talking about it [the Right of Return] in a serious way. There is either a romantic way of talking about it or a lip-service way of talking. But there is no serious discussion of it. What kind of right of return? Right of Return was originally said in the sense of liberation of Palestine. Is anyone today raising the issue of the right of return to Israel, to become citizens of Israel? Nobody is raising this. Is it a return in the framework of a binational state? Nobody is saying that [either]. There is this kind of declaration that "we won’t give up the right of return to our village" – the romantic use of the concept, and there is the lip service use whereby the concept is attached on to the list of Palestinian demands as a kind of cliché, without thinking about what one part of the slogan has to do with the other part. "A Palestinian state – a two state solution - and the right of return? How can you combine the two? This is lip service. This is not real.
Q: But on a deeper level, it does exist because…
A: Let us see. Because there are a lot of young people movements around the world speaking about right of return. I agree.
Q: But it’s not just around the world: you can begin with the high participation of refugees in this Intifada as an indication that they are still fighting for their rights.
A: Ok. Very good. But the high participation of refugees in this Intifada is any way because of class elements. Usually the refugees are the incubators of the national movement. They are the ones who struggle – for anything – not only for the right of return. They are the people who struggle against occupation, and not only for the right of return.
People who are for the right of return, and who are for not giving up the right of return are responsible today for framing the issue politically. The Palestinian leadership will not be able to do this. These people [those for the ROR] must say how [it is possible]. This is very important: because if you do not put it in the political model, you will actually not be answering people like Sari Nusseibeh [who call for abandoning the right to return and establishing a Palestinian state]. They [people like Nusseibeh] are speaking politics.
The right of return people will have to say, "either there is a place for the right of return in the framework of a two-state solution, or they must say "yes you are right, there is no place for the right of return in a two-state solution, but there is a place for it in the framework of a binational state. And we accept such a framework." This must be done, now. The political questions can't be ignored anymore. People like Nusseibeh must be answered: [For example, it can be said] "No we are for a two-state solution, but a two-state solution can include the right of return. Anyway, the Zionists after all accepted the Partition Plan [of 1947] and the Palestinians composed 47% of the population of the Jewish state.”
[…] The right of return reopens the issue of sovereignty [of a state to determine who its citizens are] and what kind of sovereignty etc. If we do not address these issues we are not speaking seriously about the right of return. Many of the people who support the Right of Return are very conscious individuals who are very political and whom I sympathize with very much. They should lead. Let them lead. I want them to lead. Let them ask the questions, and address them. Not only abroad but also in Palestine. They must participate in reopening the question and setting the agenda: the "Right of Return, and how". In this political framework - in that political framework. It is very important.