Asma and Naftali
Agbarieh and Bennett run for the Knesset
by Igal Sarna
From Yedioth Aharonot, Weekend supplement, December 14, 2012
"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."– President Theodore Roosevelt. Quoted by Naftali Bennett in the preface to his book, Exit.
They are both Israeli politicians of about 40, not "aloof and hesitant souls," as the Hebrew saying goes, but very ambitious and possessing a comprehensive vision of the way this land ought to be. They belong to the same generation: He was born in '72, she in '73. He was born in Haifa, she in Yafa/Yafo/Jaffa. His parents are American; her father was from Umm al-Fahm and her mother's family have lived in Jaffa for generations. Her father was a construction worker who became a building contractor. His father is a real estate agent. Both are good looking, each in their own way: He is clean shaven like many here, but with a soft appearance; her distinct black mane surrounds her strong-lined face.
He became a born-again Jew and turned into a religious child in a secular Haifa green mansion. She reverted to Islam in the wilds of the poor neighborhood of Ajami. Their adolescence coincided with the First Intifada in a country always at conflict. He found refuge in a more Orthodox Judaism than the one with which he grew up. She adapted the Islamic style of dress and donned the hijab, thus living through the years of youthful hormone surge. Her father, a secular Muslim contractor prone to asking questions, told her: "My daughter, do not go to religion." But she delved into the Qur'an, the only answer she could find in Ajami. Yet simultaneously, in a kind of contradiction, she decided to study philosophy at Tel Aviv University.
When her father died of cancer, she was left alone with strong-minded family members who forcefully prevented her from leaving for the campus, until she left anyhow. She was a product of rebellion. When he went to the army, she went to the Faculty of Humanities. He served in the Sayeret Maglan special forces , carrying his weapons and wearing his skullcap, and learned to solve problems by subterfuge and force. At the same time she donned her hijab, studying Arabic literature and philosophy and discovered doubt. While as an officer he wrote the unit's anthem: "Maglan will devour its prey by fire... for it is the iron fist of Israel," she wrote her first political jingle. He wrote a book of advice on business exits, she wrote love poems and dreamed of writing a novel.
He left the army as an officer but kept his skullcap, going to hi-tech to establish a company. Her loaded questions were no longer answered by religion, so she removed her hijab. An activist named Michal Schwartz taught her the principles of socialism in Arabic and her eyes were opened to the racism, the Occupation, and poverty: "The only place where there is no discrimination between Jews and Arabs." When he made his fifth million, she discovered the extent of the injustice but learned that there was nothing to be afraid of.
When he married and had four children in Ra'anana, she remained an unmarried atheist, married to workers' politics. He joined the Likud, like his parents before him, and was Netanyahu's chief of staff during the latter's days in the political wilderness, then becoming a leader of the settlers in the Occupied Territories. She became a member of a small workers' party called Daam, which means "support" in Arabic; she traveled from place to place, establishing a workers' committee for truck drivers and taking an active part at the heart of the social justice protests of 2011. He supported the protest in his way, that is, with qualifications.
She believes there is a third way, not the way of America or of Iran, but the unity of the oppressed and a whole Middle East Spring: the unification of all the protest movements, including the Israeli one, against corrupt governments.
She traveled to Cairo during the upsurge of the summer of 2011 and there too she found allies, Egyptians who felt close to the Rothschild Boulevard tent encampment and the self-immolation of Moshe Silman. She is hoping to see the downfall of Assad and Mahmoud Abbas. She writes: "In no way, shape or form do I deny my own Arabic being. I breathe this language and its music, and I fantasize that one day I will write a novel in it. But I firmly refuse to lock myself in the ghetto of Arab nationalism and thereby turn all of those who are beyond the national fence into an enemy or an opponent or just ' the other'. I refuse to function as a victim, because the state of being 'other' is victimhood. Victimhood screws mainly the victims and adds to their oppression."
He proposes to annex parts of the West Bank unilaterally, to apply sovereignty there, to grant citizenship to a small part of the population. As a corollary he wants to respond in a far bigger and harsher way to any breach of a ceasefire. Crush any resistance. He has a plan to calm the Territories through the creation of a Palestinian reservation, monitored by the IDF and Shin Bet. "Full autonomy with traffic contiguity between the territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority: An Arab will be able to travel from any point in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] to any other point without encountering checkpoints and soldiers. Just like we don't like to stand in long traffic jams, neither do the Arabs. A one-time investment of hundreds of millions of dollars would allow us to carry it out... to improve the lives of the Arabs, and we will get rid of unwarranted international and humanitarian pressure."
He is Naftali Bennett, a millionaire from business exit strategies with four children living in Ra'anana, who has just been elected in primaries to lead the party called ha-bayit ha yehudi, "The Jewish Home." She is Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka, who at a mature age married Musa Zahalka, a feminist, an actor, and a renovation contractor. They have one child. She was selected by a Daam committee to be the party's lead candidate in attempting to enter the 19th Knesset. She takes the bus.
It would be difficult to conceive of two political visions any further apart and contradictory: the Jewish Home is predicated purely on Jews, whereas Daam's very essence is a Jewish-Arab alliance. He is into the eternal conflict and she is into the vision of the alliance. She cleared her way out of hard soil and her heart yearns for peace. He grew up on a bed of soft grass but his path is very belligerent.
You could compare Bennett to a new version of Bibi, a "Bibi-5" like the Apple phone that has just been released to the stores. There are long queues of those seeking the new product, which seems half American, half-divine. The blogger Ilani wrote that Bennett "excites even the gays in the community." It's a good sign, given that they are said to be able to pick the next trend. Bibi and Sarah Netanyahu can also sniff it in the air. Bennett will soon be treated according to the methods of the sick court of Bibi where he once served; they are methods that he knows well. For Bennett, Netanyahu is a rival and a role model, a father figure to be eliminated in order to inherit his reign. In his book Exit, Bennett describes some essential lessons learned from Bibi. "I never saw a man so stubborn and persistent." Thus he sums up the obstacle that stand in his path to the PM's throne. He does not mention Lieberman.
Personally, on the eve of the 2013 elections, the atheistic Arab woman from Ajami, with her notion of a covenant between the two peoples, expresses my heart's inclinations and my hopes much more than the religious Ashkenazi, "exit" man from Ra'anana, with his plans in the style of 19th-century colonial enclaves for an eternal conflict free of traffic jams.
Text from Igal Sarena's blog
—Translated by Sol Salbe of the Middle East News Service, Melbourne, Australia