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talking politics

An empty chair at Peres' funeral

As expected, when the Joint List of four Arab-dominated parties boycotted the funeral of Shimon Peres, the result was fanfare and headlines. Opinions about this conspicuous absence are divided in both the Arab and Jewish sectors. The arguments miss the real question, though: What is the political significance of this boycott? What did Ayman Odeh (head of the Joint List) hope to achieve? Peres had critics among both Arabs and Jews, from Likud supporters to some on the Left. There is little doubt that Odeh’s action increases the separation between Jews and Arabs. It is a gap that has already been widened by politicians on all sides: Netanyahu and Miri Regev excel at cultivating it, but Yair Lapid and Isaac Herzog have also been known to do so.

To justify his absence at the funeral, Odeh evoked the historical narrative: Israelis must apologize for the wrongs they have done to the Palestinians. Until then there can be no true partnership. Hence one cannot expect the Arabs to take part in the national mourning for one of the founders of Israel, one of those responsible for the Nakba (the catastrophe of 1949). On the basis of this historical narrative, the Joint List takes flight from political reality. Odeh adopts the world view of Balad (one of the Joint List’s parties), which does not see politics as a means for effecting change. This does not mean that Odeh favors Balad’s form of nationalism, but it suggests that he accepts the view that Arab MKs have little to do in the Knesset. According to Balad, the Knesset is fundamentally racist, so the only possible course of action is to use it as a platform for protest, and especially as a mirror to show Israelis their own ugliness. The mirror of history replaces politics.

By using the Nakba as a reason for boycotting Peres’ funeral, Odeh stands in contradiction to the political narrative of his own party, Hadash, which includes Maki, aka the Israeli Communist Party. He wants Israeli society to take stock of its historic responsibility, but he declines to settle accounts with Maki's own history. Maki supported the creation of Israel and took part in the 1948 War: was this a historic mistake? Likewise, Maki supported the Rabin government and the Oslo Accords—a historic mistake? And what about Maki's support for Shimon Peres against Netanyahu in the 1996 elections, a month after Israel's artillery, under a Peres government, massacred 100 refugees in Lebanon: was this support too a historic mistake? And what about Maki's vote in the Knesset that tipped the scales in selecting Peres to be Israel’s ninth president?

Maki's partnership with the Labor Party has been and remains historic. The fibres of Peres and the Israeli Communist Party were intertwined. Indeed, Maki's partnership with Labor in the Histadrut and in local municipalities continues to this day. That makes Odeh’s boycott of the funeral look strange. It is even stranger when we recall that the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, took great trouble to attend. Maki is the only party on the Joint List that has remained loyal to Abbas. The Islamic Movement aligns itself with Hamas, while Balad never misses an opportunity to attack Abbas and the Oslo Accords. Abbas’s participation at the funeral does not constitute recognition of the justice of Zionism or the renouncing of the Palestinian narrative. It was a political decision, even if controversial, designed to strengthen the Palestinian cause in the face of Netanyahu's rejectionism. The presence of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both advocates of the two-state solution, was the backdrop that allowed Abbas to attend, despite harsh criticism from his own people.

The question is, what was Ayman Odeh’s goal? Was boycotting the ceremony a means of criticizing Abbas and signaling an end of support for him? Is Odeh parting from Hadash’s way, which distinguished it from other parties? Or was this a momentary decision designed to capture headlines but without far-reaching significance? One can argue with Maki's support for the establishment of the State, its support for the Oslo Accords, its backing of Peres and Abbas, but one cannot deny the consistency of its position, which began in blind obedience to the dictates of Moscow and continued, by inertia, even after the Soviet Union disappeared. The alliance with the PLO was established in the 1980s and has determined, ever since, Maki’s approach to the Palestinian issue.

The main question is, what will be Maki’s politics from now on? It is an undeniable fact that abandoning the political narrative in favor of a historical narrative represents a loss of direction. While Abbas is trying to strengthen the moderate Israeli camp against the right-wing, Odeh is not laying out an alternative approach. It appears he is just giving up. Peace and equality are not on his agenda. Instead there is the Nakba, as well as something deeper and more amorphous: the demand that Israel apologize. Today, according to Odeh, peace and equality will not come about until Israel recognizes its part in the historical injustice. This is probably his conclusion from the fact that Maki's support for the "lesser evil," Peres, did not produce tangible results, except to strengthen the nationalist elements within and outside of his party. Balad never ceases to remind Hadash of the wrong its Communists did by signing Israel's Declaration of Independence.

The problem is that the Nakba, which is a historic injustice, is not the political problem that needs to be addressed today. The occupation after the 1967 War is the more current injustice, and it needs to be dealt with at once. The policy of sustaining and extending the occupation has long been carried out by successive Israeli governments, which have not been prepared to recognize the Palestinian people's right to self-determination. As a representative of the Arab population in Israel, Odeh must seek the best way to end the occupation. Does support for Abbas and the Oslo Accords bring him closer to a settlement? Alternatively, is the Palestinian cause best served by making the recognition of the injustice inflicted on the Palestinian people a condition for future cooperation? Is it possible to find partners in the struggle against the occupation while disagreements remain concerning the Nakba? Perhaps Odeh should examine how to defeat the Israeli right, thus bringing about a change that will end the occupation and the settlement enterprise. Or has he given up on this?

The role of the Arab MK is not just to serve the Arab community. He or she has the obligation to serve Israeli society, both Jewish and Arab. Whoever prioritizes the interests of Arab citizens only strengthens right-wing and racist tendencies on the Jewish side. The establishment of the Joint List has not clarified the way but obscured it. Its components have lost their distinctive political identities. They hide behind a banner of "national Palestinian consensus," which is clearly political expediency. It’s easy to agree about the Nakba and become the eternal victim, but it’s much more difficult to chart a political path that struggles with the choice between Fatah and Hamas, between Bashar Assad and the Democratic opposition, between the liberation of women and their subjugation, between religiosity and secularism, between a theocratic state and a civil state.

The Joint List does not have a great deal to offer the Israeli public. It is trapped in a historical narrative that doesn’t lead anywhere but gives a warm feeling of self-righteousness. Therefore, boycotting Peres’ funeral—and, more particularly, the reasons for the boycott—do not advance us toward the longed-for peace. The act instead provides another weapon to those who claim that there is no one to talk to.

  • Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman
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