- Interview by
- Bashir Abu-Manneh
Haneen Zoabi is a Palestinian politician in Israel and a member of the political office of the Balad party (National Democratic Assembly), which was founded in 1995. She served as a member of the Israeli Parliament from 2009-2019 and participated in the Gaza flotilla in May 2010 aimed at breaking the Israeli siege of Gaza.
This interview took place against the backdrop of the recent endorsement of centrist prime ministerial candidate Benny Gantz by the Joint List, a coalition of Palestinian-majority parties of which Balad was a founding member. This endorsement, which ultimately came to nothing, was rejected by Balad, which refused to add its three coalition votes to those of the other Joint List Arab parties.
The endorsement decision was hailed by many, especially in the mainstream liberal Zionist press, as a welcome sign of Palestinian political pragmatism. In this interview, Zoabi explains why she sees the Joint List’s endorsement as a deeply flawed political move. She also sets out her own conception of the state of the Palestine question, the role of Palestinian parliamentarians in Israel, and the catastrophic absence of a unified Palestinian liberation strategy.
Where does the struggle for Palestine stand now?
Our struggle faces a crisis. Our political vision is not clear, we have no unified strategy, and we reached — because of Oslo — a dead end, without any concrete achievements or the courage to admit it. The basic concepts that used to shape our understanding and our definition of our struggle have changed.
The Palestinian leadership’s deviation from the paradigm of liberation to one of state-building failed: it didn’t decrease the suffering of the Palestinian people, nor did it empower Palestinians to rethink their mobilization strategies, rebuild their struggle, and fortify their resilience. It also did not decrease the greed and hostility of the Zionist project, or attenuate its military desire to crush Palestinian resistance and threaten our existence in our homeland.
In fact, the opposite happened. The shift of the Palestinian leadership from the liberation paradigm — which conceived of Zionism as a colonial ideology to be confronted by an emancipatory decolonization vision — to a two-state process negotiated by soft diplomacy boosted Jewish fundamentalism in Israel. It also tragically criminalized resistance and confrontation with the occupying Israeli army as “terror.” This Palestinian capitulation accelerated a parallel move on the Israeli side: from a racist liberal Zionism to fascist settler fundamentalism.
With the deeply flawed Oslo Accords, racist liberal Zionists lost their relevance and power and became pale imitations of the Israeli right. The Right itself mutated into a settler fundamentalist elite (the true meaning of the “success” of the settlement project), and this has paved the way for a new fascist Israel.
This means that for Israel, this is definitely not the time for a two-state solution. It is the time for liquidating the Palestinian cause by forcing facts on the ground, shifting from Oslo crisis management of the conflict to enforced unilateral solution. So the Palestinian cause is reduced to a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, restricted local autonomy for Bantustanized Palestinian pockets in the West Bank, and delegitimizing refugee rights. In that way, Israel aims to end the conflict.
This pessimistic description of our reality is just part of the story — which is yet to be concluded. Ours is a bitter reality that can still be overcome by the political will of the Palestinian people. I will not enter into Palestinian internal obstacles for mobilizing toward popular resistance, but let me say this: it’s the PA (Palestinian Authority) itself that acts as an occupation agent and blocks political developments toward a mass struggle. Without this PA obstruction, we would be in a totally different situation now.
What is your assessment of the latest Israeli elections results?
The result of the elections is clear. Israeli society and the spectrum of its political elite are continuing with the plan to crush Palestinians and their aspirations for statehood and justice. The annexation of Area C in the West Bank prevents any possibility of a two-state solution, or any other kind of Palestinian self-determination. The Palestinian Authority is complicit in this: it doesn’t challenge Israel and allows it not to be held internationally accountable for its crimes against the Palestinian people.
The opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu that Israeli society is looking for is not a political-ideological alternative. On the contrary, Benny Gantz and his new party, Kahol Lavan (Blue and White), are no different from Netanyahu in the security axis and share with him his deep hostility against the Palestinians. They just don’t share his views on the formal apparatus of the state, especially the judiciary, and the media. Gantz’s motto, “Israeli security,” means crushing Palestinians and Palestinian resistance. So no one should cultivate any illusions about Israeli opposition parties.
What will change Israeli politics isn’t the soft diplomatic approach of the PA but popular resistance in a new unified strategy of liberation.
What, in your view, should be the role of Palestinian parliamentarians in Israel?
It should be part of an overall Palestinian leadership. The fact of being in the Israeli Parliament should not redefine your core role of representing your people and struggling for their rights. It should not change your political perception regarding the nature of the state as a colonial apparatus and ideology — which you are struggling against. Nor should it modify it, or mitigate or change your political mission of decolonizing the state.
So, you use Parliament as a very restricted yet important platform that allows you to be more vocal and raise political awareness about your people’s needs and aspirations. By doing that, you present a true democratic alternative, not only for your people but also for Jewish Israelis as well.
The Knesset is a tool, a medium, in a larger political project — not the be-all and end-all of politics. The Knesset gives you a wide platform to convey your messages to your people, and it is a crucial front in the clash with Israeli public opinion and the Israeli elite.
Of course, there are dangers here. Every tool has internal codes of performance and constraints that might alter its political content. Parliamentarians might be tempted to seek acceptance by Israelis, to internalize their weakness, to be subservient, and thus to gain Israeli legitimacy. Due to the structural pressures of location, there is, of course, a risk that you end up modifying your message, even your beliefs, and reframing your demands in ways that are more palatable to Israeli society. Since you are in the Knesset to demand certain services for your neglected and marginalized communities, political trade-offs are a real danger.
The real risk is orienting your demands around Israeli reference points and seeking “influence” in the current racist status quo, rather than upholding your own political program and interests.
But in the end, it’s our choice how we deal with the Knesset: whether we internalize the schizophrenia of serving in a totally hostile entity or we use it to consistently uphold our political principles. To be citizens in Israel is to participate in Israeli elections and to take up our seats in the Knesset. How best to manage this situation and defend our rights is the issue here.
Beside exposure to virulent Israeli public anger and hatred, the unique aspect of the work of Palestinian parliamentarians is that they are dealing with the most concrete and daily civil and national demands of the 1.5 million Palestinians in Israel. These demands concern health care, educational rights, housing rights, poverty, unemployment, and a whole range of everyday issues that are the concrete and practical content of their citizenship. That reflects our total dependency on Israeli institutions.
That’s why being in the Knesset matters to the substance of our citizenship. We cannot leave that in the remit of Zionist parties. A national mediator should be there to mediate between the Palestinian citizen and the state. Knesset members thus play a distinctive role in redefining citizenship — practices, rights, as well as people’s connections to history. It’s our way of addressing the tensions between being citizens in Israel and our Palestinian identity: that is, the contradiction of living in a state that destroyed our national society and continues to crush Palestinians.
Your party, Balad, was the only Joint List coalition partner to refuse to endorse Benny Gantz for prime minister. Why?
The endorsement of Gantz for prime minister is a form of drowning in Israeli details, a total abandonment of the Palestinian dimension, and a way of intensifying rather than resolving the contradiction between Israeli citizenship and Palestinian identity and national belonging. It also undermined all our long-standing political attempts to reconcile between them.
For Palestinian politicians in Israel, the most difficult task is managing the many tensions that exist between identity and citizenship in a hostile state. Endorsing those who have committed crimes against the Palestinian people violated the moral dimension of our national work. This superfluous, seemingly pragmatic endorsement also violated the strategic dimension of our struggle. It completely misconstrued our role in Israeli politics.
Rather than challenging and contributing to changing Israeli politics, we accepted its narrow and racist parameters. Citizenship rights should not be conditional on whether the oppressor finds the political behavior and orientation of the oppressed acceptable or not. They are unconditional. Politicizing rights like that makes Palestinians vulnerable to future political exploitation by the Zionist parties.
Finally, the endorsement undermines the crucial link in liberation struggles between articulating self-dignity and self-respect and affecting political outcomes. If we are involved in a Palestinian national struggle — and not just in a civil rights struggle — then our political identity as belonging to the Palestinian people matters and has consequences. It also determines our relationship to the state, which is one of struggle against Israeli supremacy and not merely of gaining some citizenship rights in a flawed exclusionary entity.
How do you see the relation between the struggle of Palestinians in Israel and the wider Palestinian national movement?
A very important question that I don’t have a clear answer for. We have the common ground of fighting as Palestinians against Israeli policies, meaning from the same historical and emotional position, opposing Zionism and its destructive consequences. But this fact is not enough to counteract the reality of political fragmentation.
Each section of the Palestinian people is currently fighting within its own political context, and doing it in the absence of any unified strategy or even a common political vision. After all, what is the meaning of a Palestinian people without a shared vision and shared destiny?
And how can we claim to be a people if we don’t share a common political project? We need that to forge peoplehood. Culture and origin are not enough. As Palestinian citizens in Israel, we cannot just struggle for our civic rights without connecting our struggle to ending the Israeli occupation, ending the siege of Gaza, fighting for the right of return, and fighting for a state for all of its citizens. Our micro struggle as Palestinians in Israel has to be part of a macro liberation struggle.