[This is the first installment of a two-part interview. Part Two was also published on Jadaliyya on 16 November 2012.]
The following interview was conducted in Nazareth with Awad Abdel Fattah, secretary general of the National Democratic Assembly party. The NDA (Al-Tajamoa in Arabic, and Balad in Hebrew) is one of three parties in the Israeli parliament representing Israel’s Palestinian minority, which numbers 1.4 million and comprises nearly a fifth of the country’s population.
The NDA is best known for the activities of its former leader, Azmi Bishara, who was forced into exile in 2007 after Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, the Shin Bet, accused him of assisting Hizbullah during Israel’s 2006 attack on Lebanon. No proof has so far been forthcoming.
Although the NDA has three legislators in the 120-seat parliament, the Knesset, both the party and its former leader have faced a relentless campaign of intimidation and persecution from the Israeli security services over many years. There have also been efforts at each national election to have the party disqualified from running.
The election due this January is no exception: even at this early stage, petitions have been submitted to the Central Elections Committee from senior legislators to ban the party and two of its Knesset members, Haneen Zoubi and Jamal Zahalka.
The NDA’s chief point of friction with the Israeli establishment is over its campaign for “a state for all its citizens” and its demand that Israel be reformed into a liberal democracy. This has been classified as “subversive activity” by the Shin Bet.
This interview followed Abdel Fattah`s recent publication of a booklet in Arabic arguing both that the Palestinians inside Israel need to take a more central role in rebuilding the Palestinian national movement and that it is time for Palestinians to turn away from the illusions of the Oslo process and develop their thinking about a one-state solution.
Jonathan Cook (JC): Your new booklet has caused some controversy. What led you to reconsider the position of Palestinians inside Israel in relation both to the Palestinian national movement and the two-state solution?
Awad Abdel Fattah (AAF): As far as I am aware, this is the first serious attempt to examine the role of the Palestinians in Israel as regards the national movement. Maybe it is not surprising that there is a degree of reluctance to confront this issue. We live in a complex relationship both to Israel and to the wider Palestinian people, and therefore historically we have tended to assume we should be led by the Palestinian national leadership rather than seek to have an active voice ourselves.
But changing political circumstances – the failures both of the Palestinian national leadership to remain united and clear-sighted and of Israel to engage in a meaningful peace process – make that an irresponsible position to maintain.
The reluctance also relates to the dominant political trend here for many decades. Until the 1990s, the only non-Zionist party Israel allowed to stand in national elections was the Communist-affiliated Jebha faction (Hadash in Hebrew), a joint Arab-Jewish party. The Communists wanted to improve our situation and end discrimination but that was the limit of their political horizon. Their strategic mistake was to believe that we could become equal citizens even while Israel continued to be a Jewish state. In fact, their political platform did not really counter Zionism; rather it was designed to strengthen the Zionist left to make it easier to negotiate a two-state solution.
The result was that the Arab leaders of the Communist Party stressed their Israeli rather than their Palestinian identity. Their struggle against discrimination never sought to challenge the Jewish character of the state, or identified a relationship between the two.
My party, the NDA, is the first to rethink these historic positions. We accept our intimate connection to Israeli society but reject the Communists’ approach that puts a premium on Jewish-Arab brotherhood. We see the impasse in the peace process and our own inability to realize equal citizenship in a Jewish state as intertwined. The struggle for real coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis requires not just brotherhood but confronting Israel’s colonialism and its institutional and law-sanctioned racism.
The strategy of the Communists is risky, especially when one understands that Israel has no interest in making us equal citizens. A very real danger is that we deepen our identification with our Israeliness, thereby eroding our Palestinian national identity, while at the same time achieving no better conditions, no greater rights. In my view, if we try to achieve equality without strengthening our national identity first, we risk losing both our civil and national rights.
But our vision must extend beyond the local, the parochial. Our fight for our national rights inside Israel also, of course, has a relevance to the larger Palestinian national movement. Given the current impotence of that movement, it is our duty to take a significant role. Some Palestinian intellectuals even suggest that, given our familiarity with Israeli society, we have the potential to become the most dynamic part both of the national movement and of the struggle for a truly democratic alternative.
JC: Is there a role model for the Palestinian national movement’s struggle?
AAF: Yes, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. There are several useful lessons from there, as I discovered during a visit in 2008.
The first is that our demands must be based on the principle of equality and not on the basis of separation and partition. Ronnie Kasrils, a South African Jew who became a military leader in the ANC, told me he had warned the PLO at the time of the Oslo Accords to reject the idea of partition. He pointed out that the ANC had rejected the Bantustans, a very similar formula to Oslo.
Second, the South African resistance did not sanctify any single means of struggle. It made use of peaceful, military and popular struggle, as the circumstances dictated. At different times, one means took precedence over another. For example, following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and the banning of the ANC, there was a shift to armed struggle. However, the popular means of struggle – demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins and civil disobedience – remained essential.
And third, the leaders of the resistance were largely successful in controlling internal conflicts. The unity of the democratic national movement in South Africa was essential and it was decisive in its victory.
On the issue of unity, the Palestinian national movement has split in a dangerous manner even before it has come close to achieving its goals, and a key part of it has become almost complicit with the occupation. This has parallels with the political distortions created by the apartheid system for the Coloreds and the Asians.
When the PLO was established in the 1960s, it was an important and unifying organization that embodied the character of the Palestinian nation and ended fragmentation. But it was given a monopoly over resources and decision-making that corrupted the mainstream leadership. Its humiliating compromises aborted the Palestinians’ main objective: the establishment of a single secular, democratic state in Palestine.
We have lost the consistency and clarity of the strategic goal that directed the South African resistance: the abolition of racism and the achievement of full equality. The Palestinian elites, on the other hand, began by proposing a single state and ended by demanding a state on just twenty-two percent of Palestine and accepting Israel as a Jewish state. Recently, Mahmoud Abbas, the PA chairman, has again suggested he is ready to compromise on the right of return.
JC: What are the important differences between the Palestinian situation and that of the South African resistance?
AAF: The regime in South Africa was clearly and overtly racist, which made it easier to open an international front against it, particularly as the leaders of the resistance adopted and promoted a clear and consistent democratic discourse. The Israeli regime has been more sophisticated and subtle. It has pursued many racist policies in an implicit manner.
If you talk to former ANC leaders who have visited Israel and the occupied territories, they will tell you that, in fact, Israel is more dangerous and brutal than its South African counterpart. The Israeli regime originally sought to purge the land of its indigenous population precisely so that it could declare itself a democratic state and become part of the Western democratic family, which lent it every means of support. The expulsion of about eighty percent of the Palestinian people from the 1948 borders Israel created was the first instance of racial segregation. One can therefore say that the Palestinians are at the same time the victims of Israel’s Jewishness and its democracy.
Unlike apartheid South Africa, Israel does not want to coexist with its native population; it wants to get rid of them through ethnic separation, after its failure to expel them completely. For Palestinians under occupation, Israel has constructed the Separation Wall and a special legal system for the settlers. The Wall separates Palestinians from Israel without giving them independence. In the Gaza Strip, Israel pulled out of the prison to control it from the outside. And inside Israel, the system has deteriorated towards apartheid: Palestinians in Israel have the right to vote, but they languish in a racist system that discriminates against them in all spheres of life. Our situation is similar to that of the Coloreds and Asians in South Africa, who were granted the right to vote but only for a race-based parliament.
JC: Are there indications that Israel’s colonialist regime is weakening? And do you see any signs that the Palestinian leadership is seriously considering a one-state solution?
AAF: When I was in South Africa, I spoke to the former police minister in the apartheid government, Rolf Meyer. He was a key figure in negotiating the end of the apartheid regime, and by that stage he opposed apartheid. But when I asked him whether he foresaw the end of apartheid, his reply surprised me. Not at all, he said.
Those of us who talk about a one-state solution in the Israel-Palestine context are often dismissed as utopians. But the case of South Africa shows things can change fast and without warning.
While it is true that the Zionist colonialist regime has gained momentum on the ground since Oslo, it has also increasingly lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Particularly important is the fact that many people are waking up to the idea that Israel is an apartheid state and that it deserves a resolution no different from what happened in South Africa. Racist regimes are illegitimate and cannot survive.
The debate about one state is being revived by Palestinians, even among those who have yet to accept the idea. But one of the problems is that the PA is still using this discussion as a way to frighten Israelis. The demand for justice and equality should not be used as a scare tactic: in fact, we should be making the argument that one state would be good for Israelis too.
The overriding goal now is to reunite all the Palestinian people, wherever they are, under one project – to incorporate marginalized groups like the Palestinians in Israel and the refugees into one comprehensive struggle. It’s time to unite all groups and individuals who embrace the democratic option in a single movement.
JC: The view you’re advocating appears to a decisive break with the political thinking of your own party. The ANC, for example, rejected collective or national rights and restricted its demands to individual rights within a single democratic state. But the NDA identifies itself as a nationalist party, and demands cultural and educational autonomy.
AAF: As the party’s secretary general, I have to take the initiative and push the debate towards the ANC’s approach. I have always been a believer in a single state as the most just and ethical solution to the conflict.
Remember that the NDA’s traditional position on this issue derives from the circumstances of its creation. The party was founded in the mid-1990s in the immediate aftermath of the signing of the Oslo Accords, in which both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships agreed that our future as a minority lay inside Israel. This forced us to consider afresh the nature of our citizenship on the basis of the struggle to combat Zionism.
In the context of the two-state solution proposed by Oslo, collective rights became essential, as there could be no equality without these rights. This was reflected in the demand of the NDA for self-determination for the Palestinian minority in Israel through a cultural self-rule under our party’s slogan of a “state for all its citizens.”
Palestinians in Israel have many individual rights as citizens but these rights are usually subservient to, and therefore negated by, the national rights exclusively enjoyed by the Jewish majority. This is true for all the major issues of citizenship. Because they have national rights, Jews enjoy privileges regarding immigration; access to key resources like land; financial benefits, including employment, derived from Israel’s all-encompassing view of security; assistance from international Zionist organizations like the Jewish National Fund; and so on.
The implicit message of our platform of a state for all its citizens was that, given the reality that we are a Palestinian minority living in a Jewish state, our first priority must be to demand both individual and national rights.
This is why we are a nationalist party – not in a chauvinistic sense but because we recognize that there can be no hope of equality for us in a Jewish state unless we advance our own national rights, strengthen our national identity, and create and develop our own national institutions. This is a vital way of modernizing our society and confronting traditional tribal and sectarian divisions that Israel is keen to exploit through its policy of “divide and rule.”
Some of us in the party were skeptical from the start both about the Oslo process – I personally never gave up on one democratic state and so preferred not to run for the Knesset myself – and about it being possible to reform the Jewish state. We assumed it would never sanction such a challenge. But for those members, including myself, the goal of the struggle itself was to clarify these matters, forcing the state of Israel to reveal its true nature through its need to retaliate against our legitimate and democratic demands.
Our party’s first leader, Azmi Bishara, for example, used his position in the Knesset to transform what was a predominantly Zionist chamber into an arena of ideological confrontation. It was through his being in the Knesset that he was able to expose the inner contradictions of the Jewish state as a source of the structural discrimination against Palestinians in Israel.
But now with the irrelevance of the two-state solution, we as Palestinians in Israel have to rethink our approach. We have to respond.
As long as our struggle is within the context of a Jewish state, we must advance a national rights discourse to preserve our identity from the threat of Israelization. But in parallel we need to start articulating and developing a role in the Palestinian national movement, as part of a new Palestinian response to the Israeli policies of apartheid all Palestinians face.
Our duty now is to take as our starting-point the universality of the struggle by Palestinians – in Israel, in the occupied territories, in exile – against Zionist colonialism. The correct response to our shared situation is a struggle for a one-state solution. This is based on an understanding that an end to Israel’s colonization of the occupied territories will not transform Israel into a normal state that can treat its non-Jewish citizens equally.