Jerusalem — When a government probe into allegations of treason caused the charismatic Arab politician Azmi Bishara to resign his Knesset seat and flee Israel in 2007, Dr. Ahmad Tibi, a former aide to PLO leader Yasir Arafat, leaped easily to the fore as his community’s most prominent national advocate. Like Bishara, he gained notice, too, as the Arab sector’s sharpest goad against Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state.
By turns dramatic, acerbic, outrageous and moving, Tibi, who heads the Israeli Arab party Ra’am-Ta’al, an acronym for Arab Movement for Renewal, has provoked many Israeli Jews with his knack for elegantly crafted verbal spitballs. But now, Tibi has become embroiled in a controversy that goes beyond mere political fisticuffs, after he was shown on video praising Palestinian “martyrs” — a word commonly used in Arab political discourse to describe both terrorists who die while committing acts of violence against Israeli civilians and Arabs who die, unarmed, by Israel’s hand.
Read Forward columnist Philologos’ piece about the linguistic issues raised by Ahmad Tibi’s racy poem about a right-wing Knesset colleague.
The video, released by Palestinian Media Watch on January 18, was purportedly taken last year at a Ramallah rally for the annual Palestinian Martyrs Day. “The occupier wants us to call them terrorists, but we say there is nothing greater than those who died for their homeland,” Tibi declared to the crowd. He also said that the martyr “holds the height of glory.”
Tibi, who is a deputy speaker of the Knesset, insists that he rejects violence and was referring only to Arabs who were killed by Israeli forces, not to people who harm civilians. And he says that the release of a clip edited to imply otherwise is part of a growing campaign to delegitimize Arab lawmakers.
“It’s a sport in this Knesset to attack Arab members,” he said during an interview in his office, arguing that the current parliamentary term is the “worst and most racist” that he has served in.
Tibi showed the Forward a clip from his speech at this year’s Palestinian Martyrs Day rally, on January 7, where he named people he considers “martyrs,” all of whom were civilians killed by Israel and none of whom perpetrated attacks. By editing last year’s clip to give a different message, Palestinian Media Watch “tried to violate and mislead,” he said.
Itamar Marcus, the organization’s founder and director, argued that Tibi’s statement that “the occupier wants us to call them terrorists” proved that he was not actually limiting his comments to civilians when he talked about martyrs. He also argued that Tibi was at fault regardless of the meaning of the speech: Palestinian Martyrs Day commemorates terrorists as well as civilians killed by Israel, Marcus said, and by attending the event, Tibi gave his “stamp of approval” to the “glorification of terrorism and suicide terrorists.”
The controversy about Tibi’s comments comes as the activities of other Arab lawmakers are also under a spotlight. It emerged in mid-January that during a raid in the West Bank, the Israeli army found a photograph of Haneen Zoabi, from the Balad party, meeting with senior Hamas officials, including Aziz Duwaik, who is the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the Palestinian Authority’s parliament. Duwaik was arrested by Israeli authorities on January 19, and was placed by a military court in administrative detention for six months, “due to the danger posed by the detainee’s active involvement in the Hamas terror organization.” Photographs of Ibrahim Sarsour and Masud Ganaim, from Tibi’s party, also meeting with Duwaik were found online.
The photographs, like Tibi’s martyr comments, sparked angry reactions in the Knesset. Alex Miller, of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, spoke of the “absurdity” that Arab factions in the Knesset “take advantage of the democratic platform to join Israel’s worst enemies and promote armed combat against the State.”
Tibi rejoined that it was misleading to suggest that meeting with democratically elected P.A. lawmakers from Hamas implies endorsement of the violence deployed by the group’s military wing.
“We are against the harming of civilians and condemn bombing restaurants and buses — this is known to Hamas and to Likud,” he said.
When the Forward interviewed Tibi in the Knesset on January 23, he was less rushed than normal. Thanks to yet another controversy, Tibi had been banned from the plenum for one week.
The issue in this case was his reading of an allegedly offensive poem from the Knesset podium aimed at Anastasia Michaeli, a lawmaker from Yisrael Beteinu. On January 9, Michaeli, herself a sometime practitioner of politics by provocation, threw a cupful of water into the face of Arab lawmaker Ghaleb Majadle, of the Labor party, after Majadle called her a “fascist” during a Knesset debate. Michaeli was banished from all parliamentary proceedings for one month as punishment for her misconduct.
In his poem responding to Michaeli, Tibi said the Yisrael Beiteinu member had “a problem with her plumbing” and used the Hebrew term “cos amok,” or “cup of frenzy” to describe her act.
The Knesset’s Ethics Committee took this phrase as an innuendo, as it sounds like an Arabic curse that refers to female genitalia, and imposed its ban. Tibi denies any innuendo. “Worse than its stupidity is it not knowing Hebrew,” he said of the committee. (The poem’s many linguistic nuances are described in this week’s Philologos column, on page 17.)
Though Tibi has disdain for Zionism, he has a fascination with one of its products, Modern Hebrew. The son of middle-class parents from Taibe in central Israel, Tibi earned his medical degree at Hebrew University in the late 1970s and was immersed in Hebrew there. “I like the language,” he said. His speech is often laced with word plays and literary references — hence the readiness of Knesset members to suspect innuendo in his poem. His eloquence in Hebrew, combined with his sharp tongue or charm, depending on the day, means that his comments often make the news. “Among the Arab MKs, I am the one who communicates with the Israeli public more than others — they may not love me or like me, but I want them to listen to me,” he said.
Tibi’s face, with his trademark moustache, is instantly recognizable to most Israelis — many know him best from newspaper cartoons, where he is regularly caricatured. For the Jewish Israeli public, ever suspicious about what many consider the divided loyalties of Israeli Arabs, the election in 1999 of a top aide to Yasir Arafat was unsettling. Even today, Arafat’s picture is displayed in Tibi’s office.
As far as Tibi is concerned, the current controversies involving him and his fellow Arab lawmakers stem from a basic desire by the Israeli right to present them in black-and-white terms as the enemies of democracy and of the State. The charge, he says, not only misrepresents him; it oversells Israel as a democracy. Israel, he insists, is better described as an “ethnic democracy” that gives preferential treatment to Jews, or a “Judocracy.”
Despite this, Tibi does respect a few of Israel’s veteran Jewish politicians, even from the right — he named Likud’s Reuven Rivlin, whom he regards as principled and honest, as one. But Tibi feels only fury towards the newer and farther-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, which was established by Russian-speaking immigrants. “Normally, racism is from the indigenous to the newcomers, like with Jörg Haider in Austria, but here it is the immigrants towards the indigenous,” he said indignantly.
Tibi’s relationship with Jewish lawmakers has had the odd high over the years. His speech on International Holocaust Memorial Day in 2010, calling on Palestinians to reject Holocaust denial, won him praise from across the Knesset. “There is nothing more foolish or amoral than Holocaust denial,” Tibi said from the Knesset podium. “For what purpose? What end is served exactly by those who do so? We are here in the era of realizing rights for self-determination and freedom, not dismantling states or peoples.”
Later that night, he told broadcast news anchor Yair Lapid, “I live together with you, I am obliged to understand your happiness and your sadness…just as I expect you to know me and know those sides in me….You have all gone through an infinite experience, a very unique one that will live on even after the last of the murderers and criminals have passed from this world.”
Yet on a different broadcast, he rejected his hosts’ efforts to get him to denounce Hamas as a “Hitlerist” group on the basis of its charter, which calls for Islam to “obliterate” Israel, looks forward to the murder of Jews by Muslims on judgment day and denounces Zionism as an evil worldwide force throughout history, responsible for everything from the French to World War II.
Tibi believes that relations now are on a steady downward slide. The current accusations against him are just opening shots, he said, because right-wing lawmakers from Likud and Israel Beiteinu see criticizing him as a vote-winner. “If we are close to an election, they will increase their incitement,” he said.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org