Between The Lines – December 2002
An Interview with Awad Abdel Fattah, General Secretary of the National Democratic Assembly [NDA] on Sept 23 2002
Q: There has been talk of reforming the Arab leadership in Israel? There have even been discussions about creating a national parliament for the Arab minority? What is the likelihood of such reforms?
A: We have been calling for reform of the Follow-Up Committee [which comprises all the Arab mayors, MKs and leaders of the political parties, considered to be the representative leadership body of the Palestinian citizens of Israel] for some time. The NDA does not talk about creating a parliament but about building a unified national leadership. We were the first party to put forward a proposal for such a body for the Arab minority but everyone agreed that the Follow-Up Committee needed improving. The Committee is really a fragile coalition of parties, a structure that is not effective at taking and implementing decisions.
Decisions are based on consensus rather than voting and so one party can always hold the rest hostage.
The Communist Party wants reform too but is not happy with rebuilding the Follow-Up Committee on a national basis. It has signed the Israeli Declaration of Independence of 1948, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state and committing itself to the idea of an integrative approach with the Jewish public and institutions. It fears that an [Arab] parliament will be seen as a separatist body.
The Communists had an important historical role in fighting against land confiscation and preserving the Arab language but now with the Arab community’s greater political maturity it needs a new vision. The NDA believes elections to the reconstituted body should be restricted to the national community [excluding those who support Zionist parties]. We would still participate in the Knesset elections: we are still Israeli citizens and still want our individual rights within the state recognized. But we also have collective national rights that we must articulate if we are to develop our national identity. After all, the Jews in Palestine started with their national institutions: the Histadrut, the Jewish National Fund, the Israel Lands Authority and so on. The Jews invented their own national identity, so why not us?
Q: But can’t the existing Follow-Up Committee be reformed?
A: No. Change is essential if we are to modernize ourselves. The Committee is comprised of 60 mayors who were elected to mayorship either because they are affiliated to the Zionist Labor party or because they had the support of their extended families. They represent their villages or their families, not a national vision. Without this vision we can’t be equal and we can’t stem the process of Israelisation. Without our own national institutions, how can we make the case for our right to an equal allocation of resources?
Q: What about the role of the Zionist Arab MKs in Labor, Likud and Meretz?
A: Until 1997, these MKs participated in the Follow-Up Committee. But things changed after we established the NDA as a political party in 1996. Our view was that they should not be included in the Committee and we clashed with them and the Communist Party on this point. The Communists were against our position, saying the Zionist MKs represented a section of the Arab voting public. But in the end we convinced the others. Although officially they can still attend, they don’t come anymore. Issues like the al-Roha attack [when Israeli security forces clashed with people in the town of Umm al-Fahem in 1998 during attempts to confiscate land] and the wave of house demolitions against the Arab minority, made it untenable for them to belong.
Q: Clearly there are plenty of points of friction between the NDA and the Communist Party. What are relations like at the moment?
A: A deep rift emerged between the NDA and the Communists Party after the 1999 general elections. Our criticism is that the Communists have failed in their raison d’etre: the party has not penetrated Jewish society. And while more than 95 per cent of their voters are palestinans, a tiny number of Jews in the party have a disproportionate control of the party. Our two parties have negotiated over our relations on national priorities and the verbal war has stopped. But the rift has not healed, particularly over the role of the Follow-Up Committee. At the moment, our view is that the Committee is better than nothing. But if it remains in this form for too much longer it may become harmful, not least because it offers no way to confront and challenge Zionist discriminatory policies.
Q: What about the new laws passed this summer on the platforms of political parties? Do you think the NDA will be banned from standing for the Knesset in the next election?
A: At the moment we are giving much thought to the question of how to present our platform. We are sure the Knesset election committee will outlaw us before the next election, and we will go to the High Court to appeal that decision. We also know we will face a growing incitement campaign. The Jewish Left and Right are united on this point, and the election committee is mainly drawn from members of Labor and Likud. Similarly the police and security establishment are compiling files on us and our activities to create a case against us. We believe our statements have been within the existing law, which is why they needed this new legislation. The trial of Azmi Bishara highlighted this point to them. They realized they could not prove he had violated the law as it stood. As a party we respect the law not because it is a good law but because it is the law. Nevertheless we will continue to struggle against legislation like this [one proposed] that discriminates against us and campaign inside and outside Israel. Various European groups have shown support during Azmi’s trial and we are appealing to them again to help stop the campaign to ban us.
Q: Why do you think the Israeli establishment has demonized the NDA?
A: In 1996, when we were in a joint list with the CP, we were not seen as dangerous. There was a different political climate then. But I also think the Zionist parties did not realize how far we were going with our platform or how influential we would be in recasting the discourse among the Palestinian minority. Under Netanyahu[Likud], things changed. The Right realized that the Labor’s electoral strength and Likud’s weakness derived from Arab support for Labor. So Likud concentrated on delegitimising the Arab vote and attacking the Labor party for working with us. The tactic worked, and was one of the reasons why Barak was uncomfortable including Palestinians in the coalition [he established after he was elected to premiership] or even talking to their leadership.This has been a healthy development because Labor has not been good for the Arabs. It was subtler about discriminating against us but it still did it. The Right has been tougher and made us more aware of our rights. But of course there has been a backlash from the establishment at our asserting our rights.
The NDA has been targeted more since the Intifada. In the first days after the confrontations with the police [when 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed], the Shabak issued a statement saying that we [the NDA] were behind the uprising. It was said on Israel Radio that our demonstrators were seen everywhere, at every protest. When Justice Orr questioned me [during the Orr Commission of Inquiry hearings on the October Uprising] why this was so, I told him: “What do you expect political activists to do during a demonstration, staying at home? This is our role”. Had we not been there, our leadership would have lost its legitimacy among the community. Justice Orr also asked why we did not prevent the clashes. I argued that we did not have control over the demonstrators. Once the killing began the public became angrier.
The question is why the Shabak chose the NDA. Already before the Intifada the Shabak had identified our party as the main dissenting radical voice among the Arab minority. The other parties were competing with us to appear equally radical. They adopted our language, particularly about the state being for all its citizens. Our success was the reason the Communists started talking more radically, but essentially the Communist Party claims it believes in class struggle not national struggle. The Islamic Movement was limited in their critique of the state because they see everything in terms of religion: they are arguing for an Islamic country when there is a Jewish majority. But we are inciting against discrimination through nationalism, not a chauvinistic nationalism but a nationalism that seeks a democratic solution. We operate legally. We advocate the separation of religion from the state, though not from society.
Q: But there have been growing calls for the banning of the Islamic Movement too, especially after the recent “al-Aqsa is in Danger” rally in Umm al-Fahem [in which more than 50,000 people participated]?
A: The Islamic Movement uses Islamic rhetoric that is seen as inflammatory in a Jewish state. The Israeli establishment is afraid that the movement’s discourse will create a climate in which its supporters start to adopt armed struggle. The Movement boycotts the Knesset. I think there are fears in Israel where this path will lead them.
The Shabak write in their documents that both the Islamic movement and the NDA constitute a danger to the state. Barak expressed these sentiments when he told the Orr Commission that “there were people among our supporters who advocated destroying the state because they did not accept its Jewish character.” The establishment is indeed afraid that the nationalist and Islamic discourses attract people. The Shabak is not afraid of the Communists. When MK Mohammed Barakeh or others are attacked it is for their statements, not their platform.
The establishment wants to delegitimize the NDA by focusing on our platform: we do not recognize Israel as a Jewish state and we demand a state of all its citizens. In fact the present law already requires all political parties to accept Israel as a Jewish state but the new legislation [which requires parties to sign a pledge committing them to accept Israel as a state that is both Jewish and democratic] is designed to eradicate any legal loopholes. In the past, the Central Election Committee was willing not to rigidly enforce the law, but in the new harsher atmosphere they undoubtedly will. We will try to argue that we are not in favor of “abolishing” the Jewish state but that we are trying to change it so that it becomes a state for all its citizens.