Knesset member Ahmad Tibi will mark his 21st year in the Israeli parliament this year, making him the Knesset’s most seasoned Arab member. But in all this time, he has never been tapped for the position of minister or deputy minister, and while he knows chances of that happening remain slim, Tibi, 61, says he is not frustrated.

“I represent my public and fulfill a mission, and I don’t want to be a minister. That’s not what I aspire to. I aspire to make an impact. I still feel I can contribute. When I feel I can no longer effect change, I’ll be sure to let you know,” he said.

Tibi is a member of the Ta’al party, which together with Balad, Ra’am and Hadash comprise the Joint Arab List. Formed ahead of the 2015 election, the alliance became the third-largest faction in the Knesset, a position it retained in the September 2020 elections, winning 15 seats.

The controversy surrounding the Joint List has recently reached new heights following the apparent rapprochement between Ra’am head MK Mansour Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Abbas has gone on record as saying that, in order to prevent Netanyahu’s ouster, he would be willing to consider backing Likud legislation seeking to prevent forcing the prime minister, who is under indictment, to resign.

Mansour Abbas of the Ra’am-Balad Party holds a press conference after a meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 16, 2019. Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.

“This statement is wrong and there is no place for it,” said Tibi. “I hope he misspoke. I understand that a lawmaker wants to mark achievements for his constituents—that’s legitimate—but there are things that are non-negotiable in principle. When there is an indictment against the prime minister and he wants to evade his trial, I can tell you with absolute certainty that no Arab MK will dare to vote in favor of throwing Netanyahu a lifeline.”

Q: Abbas recently said that if the Joint Arab List doesn’t “change its tune” it would lose the right to exist. How did you take that?

A: His remarks provoked a heated debate in the party and in the Arab public in general. We think this is a bad government and that its demise would be best. Netanyahu systematically incites against us [Israeli Arabs] and delegitimizes us. I understand that politics is a flexible thing, but there is only so much political flexibility you can show.

Q: Could the Joint Arab List dissolve over the differences among its members?

A: The leaders of the four parties say that the recent events will not lead to the dissolution of the partnership, and I hope we are all right. The added value of the Joint Arab List lies with unity, which was the reason we won 15 mandates in the election. We gave our constituents hope that we would have more power to effect change, which is why I suggested we form an obstructive bloc to the coalition, to mark achievements for the Arab public, but [Blue and White leader] Benny Gantz shattered that hope when he joined the government. There is no doubt that we also made mistakes in our conduct and we have tried to rectify them, but then came the public debate over Abbas’s conduct.

Q: In hindsight, do you regret recommending to President Reuven Rivlin to task Gantz with forming the government?

A: It was a bitter pill we had to swallow. We explained to the public that we were doing that to topple Netanyahu. We debated the issue and eventually made a painful decision, and the result was disappointing. Gantz made the mistake of a lifetime. Blue and White has good people with good intentions, but once they joined Netanyahu’s government, they became prisoners.

Members of the Arab Joint List party at the Plenary Hall for their swearing-in ceremony as a new session opens following the elections, on Oct. 28, 2019. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.

Q: Are you satisfied with how the opposition has been operating?

A: The opposition sucks. It’s not a homogeneous body. There are no joint discussions between its members. Sometimes I consider a no-confidence vote against the opposition.

Q: Recent polls project the Joint Arab List will drop from 15 seats to 10-11 mandates. Does that concern you?

A: I’m not pleased with these results. The decline partially stems from the internal controversy that has become public, but we’ve entered election campaigns with worse results in the polls. Part of our appeal in the 2015 elections was that Arab public saw that we were able to work together despite our ideological differences. There are those who believe that we can no longer do that. I’m trying to mend the rifts that have been created and to some extent, I’ve been able to do that. Pluralism and different opinions don’t undermine unity, but multiple fractures will destroy it.

Q: Regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Fifty percent of morbidity is traced back to the Arab sector. Why is that the case?

A: After the second lockdown was lifted, people thought that we vanquished corona. As a doctor, I can tell you that coronavirus is a dangerous disease and crowded events, including weddings, will trigger outbreaks. That’s why we are calling on the Arab public to follow the Health Ministry’s directives. Weddings can be postponed or held with a smaller circle.

Q: Doesn’t the Arab public understand that that’s irresponsible?

A: Certainly. Whoever does that [violates the Health Ministry’s social distancing directives] is doing something irresponsible and egotistical. Our clergy, the [Higher Arab] Monitoring Committee, the heads of the local authorities and our MKs are calling on the public to follow instructions. Since the coronavirus outbreak I, for example, don’t go to weddings, only call to offer my congratulations. I also don’t go on condolence visits—I call. It’s not an easy thing to do for a public official, but it means to set a personal example.

Q: Are you disappointed with the peace agreements with the United Arab Emirates and with Bahrain?

A: You can sign trade, tourism and normalization agreements with the whole world, but until a peace deal is signed with the Palestinians, it’s not peace, because you can only strike peace with people with whom you waged a conflict or war. I very much want an Israeli-Palestinian peace that would end the conflict and create a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Netanyahu is proud that he reached the agreements with the Gulf states sans progress in negotiations with the Palestinians. In my opinion, that’s nothing to be proud of because it only perpetuates and prolongs the conflict.

Israeli Arabs protest against violence, organized crime and recent killings among their communities, in the Arab town of Majd al-Krum in northern Israel. Oct. 3, 2019. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.

Violence in the Arab sector

Tibi does not mince words when speaking of the Israel Police’s failure to deal with the criminal organizations in the Arab sector, where violence is running rampant.

Since the onset of 2020, 94 Israeli Arabs have been killed by Arab criminals.

“I speak from personal experience. My uncle was murdered in a mosque in Ramla eight years ago, and to this day the murder has not been solved. The killer continues to roam free,” he said.

Q: The police are not doing enough to solve crimes? To find murderers?

A: The police in Israel are strong and professional, and they have the necessary tools to deal with criminal organizations. They have successfully eradicated crime in Netanya, but for some reason they are unable to do so in Arab communities—because the government has not yet decided to eradicate crime in the Arab sector. There is a strong sense that Arabs are discriminated against regardless of whether they are alive or dead. The number of solved murder cases in Arab society is smaller than in Jewish society.

Q: Don’t the police treat murders in the Arab sector the same as they do in the Jewish sector?

A: “[Israel] treats the Arab population and what happens inside it as its backyard. There are those who believe that it’s “not so bad” that the Arabs are killing each other, and that we have to deal with protection rackets, which is one of the worst things that plagues the Arab sector. The facts speak for themselves: When a Jew is shot or murdered by an Arab, the Arab was arrested within a few days. The police have solved all murders involving Jews. In contrast, there are many cases where Arabs’ murderers are Arabs and the cases remain unsolved. For years, we’ve been asking the police to deal with violence in Arab society. We demanded a government resolution and we even saw the draft of the government plan. It [the plan] has a lot of holes in it, but it’s a step in the right direction.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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