The slate of Palestinian parties in the Knesset, aligned with neither the coalition nor the opposition, is quickly — and at times clumsily — discovering its own power. Lessons from Israel’s natural gas debacle.
By Samah Salaime
There’s an old joke about a tyrannical lion who abuses a monkey in the jungle. Every time the lion sees the monkey he gives him a hard, loud slap, and asks him, “why aren’t you wearing a hat?” After a few good, hard slaps, the monkey decides to fight back against these unprovoked injustices. He starts to organize, enlists some animal rights organizations, demands equal rights and citizenship in the jungle, the right to wear whatever he wants, autonomy over his own body, and all that jazz.
The lion’s legal advisor, the fox, of course, explains to the king of the jungle that certainly hitting the monkey is a matter of utmost strategic importance. The urge to hit him, he continues, is surely unavoidable and justified, but maybe he should do it in a way that won’t upset the international community. “So what should we do?” the lion asks. The fox suggests that the lion ask the monkey to start pulling his weight in the jungle: “ask him to bring you an apple, sir. If he brings you a green apple, hit him because you wanted a red apple. If he brings you a red apple, hit him because he didn’t bring you a green apple.”
So the lion summoned the monkey, let him know how things were going to work from then on out, and sent him off to carry out his mission. The poor monkey returned with a green apple and, with his hand shaking from fear, presented it to the lion. The lion was furious and yelled, “why green?” But before he could swing his arm around to deliver the slap his face, the monkey shouted, “I thought this might happen so I brought you a red apple, too.” It was then that an especially hard and loud slap reverberated throughout the entire jungle. “Why aren’t you wearing a hat?!” the lion yelled.
That is how it appears members of Knesset from the Arab Joint List are being treated these days, both in the Israeli parliament and the media. No matter what they do and no matter where they go, it’s not good enough. The commotion surrounding the vote on regulating (or deregulating) Israel’s natural gas reserves this past week is the perfect example.
For six years the entire country dozed off about the entire natural gas story while we got involved with Texas-based Nobel Energy and signed away huge sums and a massive natural resource. But now Israel has been overtaken by a public awakening to a sense that the country is facing a looming new era of business, in which our natural resource are being robbed and pocketed by monopolies and cartels, and that we, the citizens, will be left scrounging for leftovers and crumbs for generations to come.
In the Israeli Knesset, where every voice supposedly has value, and which continued the tradition of disparaging Arab citizens this past week when the deputy interior minister demanded Arab MKs turn in their identity cards — suddenly, something strange happened.
Monday night, at the start of a nerve-racking evening when the Knesset was supposed to vote on the controversial gas deal, Balad MKs Haneen Zoabi and Jamal Zahalka drove from Jerusalem to Ashkelon to meet their fellow party member and colleague in the Knesset, Basel Ghattas, who was arriving on the intercepted flotilla to Gaza. When word of their journey made its way to reporters, a group of journalists started asking whether the Joint List MKs had coordinated their plans for the night with opposition leader Isaac Herzog, of the Labor Party. Would they be back in time for the gas vote?
If they had, it could be perceived as a betrayal to their electorate. Just a week earlier, Herzog’s “Zionist Camp” walked out en masse from a vote to extend a ban on family reunification for Palestinian citizens of Israel and their spouses across the Green Line — after the deputy interior minister’s racist attack on Arab members of Knesset. If they had coordinated their strategy with the Zionist Camp opposition leader it would have been perceived as if they were abandoning their struggle and moral obligations to their disempowered constituency. Either way, there was no good option.
A bit later in the evening the joke that had been making its rounds over the past few days, about the Gulf states — allied with Israel in their opposition to Iran — trying to influence the Joint List parliamentarians, turned into an actual, yet comical accusation. Then, at around midnight, we were told that the honorable American ambassador to Tel Aviv was sending text messages to some Joint List MKs, urging them to support Netanyahu’s gas deal. The media had a field day speculating about who received the messages and who didn’t, and who leaked the story and who didn’t.
Think about it. The news stories claimed that the American pressure was coordinated with Netanyahu. Whether it was true or false, the Joint List MKs lose. Now they’re trying to turn the Arab MKs into American collaborators for Netanyahu? At least now we can really get worked about foreign governments intervening in internal Israeli affairs. Now, with American involvement, nobody in the Arab world will think they actually have clean hands in this whole mess.
I have a few takeaways from the natural gas story: the Joint List operates like a real political party, but still hasn’t discovered the strength of its size. The Joint List has no choice but to dirty its hands in the Israeli political game, and if it’s going to dip its feet, then it must go all-in. It’s time to understand that the Arabs in the Knesset are “real politicians,” and they can allow themselves to be a little devious, cunning — or in other words, to act like seasoned politicians.
As a political faction, the Joint List is still coming of age. But it needs to start taking advantage of the fact that it can have a meaningful impact now that it has gone from a number of smaller parties to the third-largest faction in the Knesset. I am sure that the American ambassador is regretting telling whatever he did to those Arabs who ran off to leak it in their moment of excitement, and to show off that they stood up to American pressure as a united bloc.
This time it gets a passing grade, but, the Joint List still needs to learn how to deal with the media. It needs to understand already that the way the Knesset works, with the number of votes it controls, and the way this government is behaving, has put the Joint List in the middle of the action. The power of its voting bloc on the natural gas issue proves as much.
I have no clue why everybody is trying to meddle and interfere in everything the Joint List does, and doing so from every direction. But it seems that as far as the headlines are concerned, the Arab MKs just can’t do anything right. Meanwhile, they’re getting smacked upside the head even for things they’re not doing — just because they’re not wearing a hat.
Samah Salaime is a social worker, a director of AWC (Arab Women in the Center) in Lod/Lyd and a graduate of the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call, where she is a blogger. Read it here.