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[Interview] Haneen Zoabi MK: The Peace Process Is a Failure and Abbas Must Go

First published February 7th, 2018 in Middle East Sight Magazine

Photo of Balad Party Joint List MK Hanin Zoabi

Photo by David Levene for the Guardian

Haneen Zoabi (Arabicحنين زعبي‎) is a Palestinian politician, who currently serves as a member of the Knesset for the Joint List, representing the Balad Party. Serving in the Knesset since 2009, Zoabi is the first Arab Palestinian woman to be elected to Israel’s parliament, and was re-elected in the 2013 legislative elections.

Ben Goren: Following President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, how has this changed the dynamic on the ground in regards to how the Israeli Government is pursuing its policies towards the occupied territories?

Haneen Zoabi MK: First of all, this declaration has actually freed the hands of Israel regarding building more settlements and since the declaration the Knesset has passed at least three laws relevant to Jerusalem, which implement the Israeli legal system upon the settlers. So we can see the policy of Israeli Government, which started before the declaration, is now accelerating and this policy is creating new facts on the ground, which represents a change from managing the conflict towards ‘solving’ the conflict. Netanyahu and the right-wing are not willing to discuss anything with the Palestinians, and they think they can find the solution of all the basic issues such as borders, the status of Jerusalem, transforming Palestinian territories into Bantustans, implementing Israeli law in the settlements, all of these issues which can be considered as part of finding a solution, they feel they have a legitimacy to unilaterally push ahead with any changes they like. At least the Obama administration was committed to the minimal conditions that the settlements were an obstacle to peace and that Jerusalem should be a capital for two States. In contrast, [under the Trump administration] Israel is proceeding unilaterally in order to make negotiations irrelevant and strip any future agreements between Israel and the Palestinians of political value. So Israel now feels free to ‘finish’ the conflict in a manner of its choosing and this is a serious threat.

Ben Goren: Benjamin Netanyahu recently met with the German Foreign Minister who stated his continuing support for a ‘Two-State Solution’. Mr Netanyahu interrupted him to say, “we will control security west of the Jordan river which is the first condition” and “whether or not it is defined as a state when we have military control is another matter”. Do you think a two state solution is still possible, and how can this be achieved when there is no US financial or military pressure on Israel to cease the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and what other countries or blocs can do more help achieve a real and substantial peace process that is conducted in good faith?

Haneen Zoabi MK: Netanyahu’s notion of two states is not new and didn’t suddenly develop after Trump’s declaration. It was always a vision of Netanyahu, and of Sharon before him, that a Palestinian State was not a possibility. Even in prior speeches when Netanyahu has spoken of a two state solution it is very similar to that which he referenced in his meeting with the German Foreign Minister. Palestine would have no army and Israel would be sovereign militarily speaking. It would be a Bantustan since there would be no geographical continuity, and the illegal settlements would still be under Israeli law. So when you analyse what Netanyahu means by a two state solution as he has mentioned it over the past six years you see that although he grants it can be called a Palestinian ‘State’ in reality it cannot exist or function as one, and he is quite frank about this. In regards to your second question, the solution is not to search for other mediators other than the US, but to seek another notion of the peace process and the only notion of peace process that people under occupation know is the notion of struggle. I don’t know any people who seek freedom and liberation from occupation without struggle. The notion also of sitting with the Israelis before they recognise the situation as occupation, and before they define the goal as ending the occupation is a basic mistake. It is absurd for the occupied to sit [in negotiation] with the occupier before the occupier defines themselves and their control as an occupation. 

So we should only discuss practically how to end the occupation. It is foolish blindness disconnected to reality when we talk about negotiations with the Israelis when every day they seek how to reinforce their control, expand the occupation, and how to implement Israeli sovereignty. When we analyse their discourse and the laws passed in the Knesset in the last decade, before Trump and since the declaration, we can reach the conclusion that we can see how Israel has acted as a demagogue and used the peace process as a replacement for peace. Israel has since at least 2013 used the peace process as a game to show the international community that it is negotiating with the Palestinians whilst on the ground it was expanding the settlements, deepening the violence of settlers, and the violence of the occupation so the peace process was a lie which the international community wanted to buy into as if, for example, the Europeans told Israel “please lie to us and tell us you want peace”. Why would the Europeans do this? I think it is to relieve them of the burden of duty to find an alternative to the concept of negotiations because they don’t want to recognise the right of the Palestinians to struggle.  As a Palestinian, and one who knows the Israelis, I would say that the problem is not the occupation but the price of occupation. The problem is not just the siege [of Gaza] and killing Palestinians every three point six days but the price paid by the Palestinians in the Israeli crimes against them. 

And now we see that Israeli society benefits more from the settlements. Since about 2007, depends upon the settlements to compensate the lower classes for their economic problems. The settlements provide a cheap source of food and housing, opportunity to work, lower taxes, and residents benefit from on average three times more government spending per capita than on Israeli citizens within the 1948 borders. There is no political, diplomatic, interest in ending the occupation because it doesn’t have any political or diplomatic price for them and instead it provides economic benefits. So what has been an obstacle to peace is the concept of the peace process. Another obstacle to peace has been European pressure upon the Palestinians, and even upon the Israelis, to go to negotiations. The only way to pressure Israel is not by waiting for the Israelis to change their ethical values or change their calculations.  They will not suddenly reach an ethical awareness and admit “we are criminals and occupiers, we control other people, we put 700 children in jail”, no, it’s not an internal dynamic which would pressure or convince the Israelis that is necessary but a pressure that would force them to change their calculations. Europeans came to be aware of what apartheid is, but why can’t they also realise this about Israel? It is bout sanctions, boycotts, and divestment towards Israel, describing it as a State that practices apartheid and oppression. This is the only way. 

Ben Goren: What is direction of public opinion in Israel about the occupation and the peace process?

Haneen Zoabi MK: To the right-wing. According to Israeli polls conducted by the Israeli Institute for Democracy, conducted annually, it shows clear that public opinion has been shifting towards the right-wing since the year 2000, and that there has been a big deterioration of democratic values, of justice, and in terms of the concept of the dignity and equal of citizens. 55% of Israelis think the Palestinian citizens don’t deserve equality. 73% of Jewish citizens think that Israel should not take into consideration Palestinian opinions regarding important political and security questions, but rather that they should seek a Jewish majority for these issues.  There is no gap between the Israeli Government and the majority of Israeli society because this is the society that voted for this government and these parties. You can say 100% of Israelis support the siege on Gaza and no voices criticises the siege of the Gaza within the Knesset except sometimes in Haaretz, no voices talk about the killing of Palestinian children, no voices talk about Ahed Tamimi, no voices in the Knesset stop the renewal of [inaudible] unification law. The majority are not only supporting siege and occupation but also the erasure and undoing of policies supporting Palestinian citizens within the 1948 borders.  Most people don’t ask questions about the Prawer Plan, a plan to expel 30,000 Palestinian citizens from the Negev, destroying five Palestinian villages and building five Jewish villages upon them in the same small strip of land.  The Negev covers twelve million dunams so it’s not a matter of finding enough space; it’s a matter of depriving and confiscating the Palestinians from their land because Israel still behaves as a national colonialist apartheid state. It is not a normal state, even towards its own Palestinian citizens. 

If you go to the NGO website of Adalah, look for the list of the ninety-six racist laws and you will not find one of those laws listed there existing in any other state which calls itself a democracy.  For example, the (2011) Acceptance To Communities Law which deprives me, a citizen, of living in six specified areas in the borders of 1984. I am not a minority, I didn’t immigrate to Israel, it was Israel who immigrated to me. They had to separate us from everything in order to build this state, which defines itself as Jewish and democratic, and this is a racist and colonial notion.  They came from every place in the world not in order to live with me but in order to live instead of me. This notion that the Zionists were a people with no land who came to a land with no people is still somehow valid after seventy years of establishing the state and that we are either perceived as ghosts or they don’t as even see us, don’t respect us as human beings. These are colonialists who came either to exploit the indigenous people or just ignore them. The problem is not just occupation. The second strategic mistake is to define the problem as the problem of occupation. The occupation is the outcome of the problem. The problem is Zionist subjects who came to my homeland in order to replace me, and this notion of being able to replace Palestinians is still seen as legitimate way of dealing with Palestinian citizens. So our huge historical compromise is to say “okay, we accept you even though you are a colonialist, even though you came and displaced eighty-five per cent of our people via ethnic cleansing in 1948, making most of our people refugees, and even though you the Zionists did this to us but refuse to recognise it”. And yes, we don’t accept recognising a Jewish State in our homeland but give me an example of one people in the world who, when suddenly faced with a group people from outside declaring that that this was their homeland two thousand years ago and that God had promised the land to them, will respond “okay, please come and take our land”? Can anyone seriously accept this claim? 

So of course we didn’t accept this stupid and absurd expectation of us yet the Europeans and the Americans support this because of the Holocaust and because anti-Semites there wanted to get rid of the Jews but also wanted to be in alliance with Israel to protect their regional interests etcetera. So we said, you have established yourselves, but don’t oppress me and humiliate me by expecting me to agree to a Jewish State. You have the power to oppress me, to kill me in the West Bank, to oppress my identity in Nazareth and Haifa, and you give me citizenship as a bargaining tool in return for me discarding my identity and my history and adopting your constructed identity called ‘Arab-Israeli’, in return for me not speaking of Palestine or Palestinians or speaking of this as my ‘homeland’. Then we are told that the Zionists who came one hundred and sixty years ago did us a favour, a favour!, by not expelling us then. And in return for this ‘favour’ we have to accept ourselves as Israeli and accept a Jewish State and thank you daily for these favours accorded to us. This is the deep psychology of Israel and the Zionist project. They want Palestinians to give them legitimacy but we will never as Palestinians give legitimacy to this State as a Jewish State. We will never give legitimacy to the decision of the United Nations to divide our homeland. But we are willing to provide a huge historical compromise to these colonialists by building some kind of future, not within an apartheid state, not within a Jewish State, but a state for all of its citizens. For me as a Palestinian, as an indigenous person, as the owner of this homeland, despite Israel failing to succeed in getting me to internalise a sense of inferiority, I need full civic national rights on both sides of the green line in order give legitimacy to this state. I’m happy to recognise the Israelis who were born here as Israelis and their collective rights, national rights, natural rights, and religious rights but within a normal democratic state fair for all of its citizens but with there must be  [bad signal] … the end of siege and the right of return. This is our compromise.

Ben Goren: What you’re saying here seems to align with what you said in Bern in 2016, and I quote, “One state for all citizens which is non-Zionist state, non-Jewish state, within the borders of ’48 and a Palestinian state, with the right of return”. If the Two-State solution is really dead because Israel is pursing ahead with establishing a theocratic state, and I remember here Former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s words that Israel can either be a Jewish or a democratic State but it can’t be both, would it not be logical that a solution would be one state which is non-Zionist, non-theocratic, democratic, with equal rights for all with perhaps also a new name and constitution? If the Zionism is removed from the equation, an isn’t it possible then to build a single inclusive state? Is the obstacle to peace then that the Zionist ideology that has captured the Israeli State?

Haneen Zoabi MK: The future depends on what we do and how we start it.  The future could be an apartheid state or more oppression of the Palestinians or the destruction of Gaza. There is no stability right now. The dynamic will either swing towards more apartheid or a clearer sense of justice. Right now, from where I am I can see a total shift in the future towards a realty of deepening apartheid. This is not just because of the obstacle of Zionism, or because Israel doesn’t pay a price [for its occupation and oppression] but also because the Palestinian Authority is also disconnected from reality. As long as Israel continues to control the Palestinians using security coordination, and as long as there is no massive movement of the Palestinian people towards secular resistance, towards changing the rules of the game, and breaking this notion of the peace process, for as long as the internal dynamic of the Palestinian people is not changing and the Palestinian Authority controls the situation and the way it controls it by also oppressing the Palestinians from developing or promoting any popular resistance, then will only end up with more apartheid.  Even though this sounds pessimistic, I’m not too lacking in hope because Israel may not need to carry on the charade of appearing liberal and democratic ‘in the front yard’ whilst being a Jewish state ‘in the back yard’. Israel feels a lot of confidence to now be more honest and frank and to say, “I don’t care about democracy, human rights, or political correctness now and we don’t care how the international community sees us. We deserve full control. Palestinians are terrorists.” I think there will be different outcomes of this new Israel which has a different elite than a decade ago. 

Ten years ago the internal elites of Israel shifted from liberal Zionist racism to fascism, from liberal racist laws to fascist laws, from liberal racist policies to fascist policies, and from liberal secular elites to fascist religious elites. Therefore, it will be much more difficult for the international community to continue supporting Israel. Now everyone I think understands what Netanyahu represents.  The difference between Netanyahu and Trump is that most Americans don’t look like Trump whereas most of the Israelis look like Netanyahu and opposition within the Zionist camp does not represent a real alternative. If anything it is an alternative limited to an internal Jewish debate; whether to be more secular, to make the courts more independent, whether the media should attack the establishment etc. but regarding Palestinian issues they look and sound alike. They might not be fascist but they are racist enough to dehumanise the Palestinian people and treat the Palestinian citizens as Palestinian. So it will become more difficult for the international community to perceive Israel as a democracy. And this is so important.  For as long as your actions become more criminal you need ever more legitimacy and Israel is very sensitive about its legitimacy. Netanyahu calculates he can be fascist as long as the Europeans perceive us as democratic and by actively suppressing all international critics of Israel. This, they think, will give them the political space to continue acting in a fascist manner where annexation of Area B has become a very normal part of discourse within Israel with more discussion of it that of peace with Palestinians. It will also be harder for the Palestinian Authority to justify its strategy of just waiting until the Israelis are willing to sit with them.

Ben Goren: Would you agree that a shift towards the right in the US and Europe, the rise again of far-right anti-Semitic and islamophobic parties, the rise of Trump, the re-election of the far-Right Czech President, of Geert Wilders in Holland, Nigel Farage in the UK, Le Pen in France, do you think this trend is actually helping Netanyahu and the policies of occupation and apartheid and providing cover for the transition of Israel into a fascist state?    

Haneen Zoabi MK: Yes, but we can tell there is also a gap with the young generation in Europe and how more and more supportive they are of the Palestinians. From my visits to American and European universities and from talking to young people, I can see how less afraid they are, particularly in Europe, of criticising Israel. Whilst Israel is winning the minds of the Government, the Palestinians are winning the hearts of the people and I feel young people will have a greater influence in the future. But again, international support is not the most important force in winning in our situation. It is our struggle. I cannot win my liberation by just waiting for others to support me whilst I am sitting doing nothing, fighting Hamas, oppressing my people, or Hamas having no idea what to do … Palestinians have always known how to struggle and enjoy the support of the international community because of their struggle not because they have been silent victims. One reason though why we don’t utilise the identification and solidarity of others with us is because we the Palestinians are divided and we are not so clear on what we want. For example, do we want democracy? Do we want the right of return? The world doesn’t know what we want and we don’t know what we want. And we don’t trust our leadership and the Palestinian Authority has ceased to represent its people, it continues to engage in security coordination with the Israelis, which normal people struggle to understand. You’re an occupied people coordinating your occupation with your occupier! It is a measure of defeat and they are making themselves an agent of occupation, not as a resistance to that occupation.

Ben Goren: You have called for political and strategic unity between Fatah and Hamas. Is it time for President Abbas to step aside and allow new leadership to emerge capable of leading and uniting the various Palestinian factions?

Haneen Zoabi MK: Exactly. Yes, I agree. I couldn’t phrase it in another way. It is time for Abu Mazen and the ‘VIP groups’ that have benefited from occupation to step aside. I don’t think they will step aside but I think that the Palestinian people there should force them to do so. 

Ben Goren: Do you think the BDS movement has had an impact bringing pressure to bear on Israel in any way?

Haneen Zoabi MK: Yes, a lot. I recently wrote an article in Arabic about Israel’s new strategy since 2010 that has defined BDS as a strategic threat. If you want to evaluate whether a struggle is efficient, you only need to look to see what Israel defines as a threat. Israel has defined our struggle for a State for of all our citizens as a strategic threat, something made obvious in statements by the Intelligence Agency in 2008. Two years later it defined BDS as a strategic threat. What we can learn from this is that it is not a security threat but a political threat. Israel has increased the budget to fight against the students in the universities, to invest more time, human resources, and plans, and staff, and established a special ministry called the Ministry of Strategic Threats, and redefined the focus of strategic threats from Iranian nuclear weapons and Hezbollah to the threat of political movements. By this we can see how seriously Israel takes this political movement into consideration because Israel knows the minute people know about the reality in Israel, and the second condition, the minute people around the world have the courage to talk about the reality in Israel, it is the same minute when Israel will lose ‘the game’. And this is why they see it really as a strategic threat because the measures Israel uses to justify itself is that it is a democracy and it defends itself. The minute these are no longer [accepted by the international community] is the minute Israel loses [legitimacy]. And this is why BDS is so important. BDS opens the eyes of people to what is really happening, and gives them the courage to talk about it, and to do something to protest it. For Israel it is not an economic loss [BDS incurs] but a symbolic, political defeat.

Ben Goren: Currently the Joint List has 13 members elected with a total of 18 Arab members elected to the Knesset. This is 15% of the seats. The total Palestinian population of Israel is around 18%. How can Palestinian turnout and participation be raised?

Haneen Zoabi MK: This is a good question. First of we need to say something about why [our turnout] is so low. The main reason is a lack of confidence in the Israeli political system in respect of Palestinian rights. Our people have no confidence in Israeli politics and feel that Israeli politics is a reflection of a racist space with our freedom of movement in respect of accepting or rejecting Israeli policies is so low, so [our non-participation] is an act of despair and distrust. It is also an indication of our weakness, that we the Palestinians cannot really challenge and force the Israelis to change. We cannot make the Israelis pay the price of their oppression and recalculate what they lose from oppressing us outweighs the benefits of alienating us, which may express itself in more violence and more active resistance.  This is why we have no confidence in both Israeli politics but also ourselves to force change. In order to change this situation, I think we should reconsider our tools of struggle. For example, we have no seriously considered the strategy of civic disobedience. We haven’t considered raising our power not by voting but actually the opposite, to boycott the Knesset. [We could say] “Okay, you want a Zionist, an ethnic pure Jewish State, you will have a pure Jewish Knesset, and we will start freeing ourselves”. I would say that this would be a total shock to the Israelis because then we would not be acting by their laws and [the rules of] their game, we would be defining our own laws of the game. We will formulate our own Parliament and use this Parliament to strengthen what we have now, what we call the [Follow Up Committee] in order to act as our own Parliament. Of course this sounds like an irresponsible fantasy but sometimes being ‘crazy’ and upturning the established order of things is the only truly responsible act.   

Ben Goren: I wanted to ask about the Knesset particularly because of frequent news about evictions from the chamber, of MKs being jailed and prevented from attending committees, yourself included, and recently the protest in the Knesset when the US Vice-President Pence visited. Were you there at that time and can you tell me what happened?

Haneen Zoabi MK: Yes, I was there. We decided we would not listen to his speech, that we would boycott, but that we also would send him a message. So we prepared a slogan saying ‘Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine’ and we held up the sign and after a matter of seconds the security of the Knesset came and took the sign from our hands and they kicked us out.

Ben Goren: Were you saying anything at the time or just holding a sign?

Haneen Zoabi MK: We said nothing and only held the sign and when we reached the door we booed and jeered.

Ben Goren: You are the first Palestinian woman elected to the Knesset. You have defined yourself as a feminist and a person for who the human being is at the core of your political philosophy. What political, economic, and cultural obstacles exist for other Arab-Israeli girls and women to emerge as leaders of their communities?

Haneen Zoabi MK: First of all we have all the same obstacles that Western women have. Whenever there is a competition between a woman and man, voters would always prefer the man but our society is much more conservative. Sometimes they will pick on a woman saying she cannot do [the job], she doesn’t have the right qualifications, she will not succeed, the way [women] are raised not to have or to lower their expectations in life, that they should first of all be responsible for their family, their sons, daughters, children, to raise them because there is no cooperation between wife and husband in raising their family, and it is considered a woman’s duty. Then there is a very tough competition within the parties between men and women. Men have more time to be known, more time to invest in public than in private affairs, but having said that, there is no attitude that women cannot be political leaders and there is no conservative mainstream idea which restricts women, it’s more a case of practical obstacles than social values. One major obstacle is really the limit of what we can be in this system. We cannot become a Head of State. The highest position for a Palestinian is to be an MK [Member of Knesset] so the competition for political positions is much harder and women will always suffer in this competition. One week ago the Islamic Movement (party) had their conference and adopted the Balad decision of ten years ago to have a quota of women [candidates]. The only party which doesn’t have a quota and which is represented inside the Knesset is the Communist Party that always declares itself as a progressive, secular party.

Ben Goren: Do you think there’s any support amongst Israeli feminists for more female Palestinian participation in politics? Is there any criticism of or backlash amongst Israeli feminists, maybe academics or TV personalities or social activists, against Israeli Government pink-washing of the occupation? For example, Wonder Woman was a popular film but it was heavily criticised because Gal Gadot was chosen to be the lead and people said she supports the IDF and the bombing of Gaza and therefore boycotted the film. Do you see any similar protests amongst Israeli feminists?    

Haneen Zoabi MK: Not at all. The Israeli feminists are first of all Zionists and then they are feminists. For them they don’t see feminism as a comprehensive, non-divided value system of justice. For them the definition of feminism is the right to be like a man so if a man has the right to bomb Gaza an Israeli feminist would say as a woman they also have the right to bomb Gaza. This doesn’t include the radical, anti-Zionist feminists.  For [conventional Israeli feminists], feminism has nothing to do with being Zionist or anti-Zionist. If you are an anti-Zionist feminist then you regard feminism as a comprehensive value system of liberation for men and women but if you are a Zionist feminist then first of all you would criticise the Israeli army not because they are bombing Gaza but because they are not letting Israeli women bomb Gaza, not because they are occupying the West Bank but because the Israeli woman doesn’t have the same source of power in the occupation system. The Zionist feminist wants their share of power, whether that power is wielded to occupy and kill or to build.

Ben Goren: My last question Mrs Zoabi, what would you say to people, especially in Europe, and I’ve seen this a lot in the UK and on social media, who say that anti-Zionism is the same as anti-Semitism?   

Haneen Zoabi MK: This is a largely tactic used by Israel to silence legitimate criticism of Israel. The only way to silence legitimate criticism is to mix legitimate criticism with racism. I don’t deny the existence of anti-Semitism in Europe towards Jews and the phenomena of anti-Semitism is real and it has always existed in Europe and I don’t think those attitudes have gone. But I think that Israel doesn’t want this anti-Semitism to disappear because they want to use it in order to confuse with criticising Israel. For me, this confusion between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is the other side of the confusion between Jewish and Israeli. Israelis are Zionist Jews who came to colonise and they cannot represent Jews all over the world. We know that Israel is using Jews, speaking on their behalf despite that they don’t want this and didn’t vote for Israel to represent them and the proof is that not all the Jews chose to come to Israel. Most of the Jews don’t see Israel as a political, ethnic, or religious representation of them. Israel needs this confusion, this lie, this mess to preach on behalf of the Jews to confuse not just between Israel and Jews but also between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Anti-Zionism is a human democratic attitude. You cannot be democratic and humane if you are a Zionist and don’t struggle against Zionism. But being anti-Semitic is the opposite. It is a racist and inhumane attitude.  In this way Zionism and anti-Semitism are the same.   

This interview was conducted on January 31st 2018 and lasted one and half hours. With Mrs Zoabi’s permission, her replies have been edited for length and clarity.