‘A Palestinian state isn’t the solution, but it’s a step in the right direction’: Meet MK Jamal Zahalka

Chairman of the Balad party says that unification of Israel’s Arab parties is nothing short of historic — both in Israel and the Arab world: ‘There has never been unity between the communists, nationalists and Islamists.’ In an interview, Zahalka talks about his party’s appeal to Jewish voters, why the Joint List won’t join an Israeli government and what compromises he is willing to make to end the occupation.

MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad) marches along with thousands of people march through Jerusalem in support and solidarity with the Max Rayne “Hand in Hand” bilingual school, which was the target of a racist arson attack a week earlier, Jerusalem, December 5, 2014. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad) with his daughter, December 5, 2014. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

“A war of attrition.” That is how writer Samah Salaime Agbaria, my colleague at +972’s sister site Local Call, described the endless negotiations between the Arab parties in their attempt to form a single, united slate for the upcoming elections. It is a unity that was forced upon the parties, ever since the electoral threshold was raised, threatening to keep a large portion of Palestinian representatives out of the next Knesset.

For weeks, the Arab public followed its elected officials as they entered top-secret negotiations. The only thing the public had were pieces of information that had been leaked, which only testified to the bad blood and the vast ideological differences between the parties.

The task seemed almost impossible at some points: how will members of the Islamist movements sit with the communists of Hadash? Who will lead the list? Will there be one list or two? In which spots will the different candidates be placed on the election slate?

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As the rumors swirled and the general atmosphere was teetering between hope and despair, Balad Chairman Jamal Zahalka says that he had no doubt the parties would unite in the end. “For months I was the only person in the country who believed that the list would come into being. I turned myself into the village idiot — helplessly optimistic. But look, it happened.”

It is possible that Zahalka’s optimism stemmed, among other things, from the fact that a joint list was vital for Balad’s survival: the votes it received in the previous elections, as well as current polls, suggest that Balad may not have made it into the next Knesset on its own.

Since its establishment in 1995 by Azmi Bishara, the party has been the most consistent and aggravating challenge to Zionist hegemony in Israel: its platform for a “state of all its citizens,” is seen as a direct threat to the Jewish state — to Israel’s Jewish-only privileges that come at the expense of the Arabs, the indigenous people of the land. Time and again, Israel’s Central Elections Commission has disqualified the party — or its members — from running for the Knesset, forcing them to appeal to the High Court to reverse the decision. The complex relationship with the State came to a boiling point in 2007 when Bishara fled Israel after being suspected of treason, leaving the party in Zahalka’s hands.

Read also: The agonies of being an Arab democrat in the Knesset

Zahalka, 60, was born and resides in Kafr Kara. He is a doctor of pharmacy and a founder of Balad, in which he has served as an member of Knesset since 2003. Despite the controversies surrounding Bishara, Haneen Zoabi and Said Nafa (who spent a year in prison for “contact with a foreign agent”), Zahalka has been able to maintain a positive, non-controversial image for himself, which perhaps allows him to gain support among crowds outside his political base. There is something in Zahalka that makes you to listen closely to every eloquent and precise word he says. He is married and a father of five girls — his eyes glisten every time he speaks about one of them, as if he were talking about a revolution in the Arab world. He’s also a self-identified feminist. When I ask him about the ninth place in the Joint List, MK Taleb Abu Arar from the Islamist Movement who is married to two women, he is silent for a long time, before smiling and finally responding: “What can I say. It is very uncomfortable for me.”

But despite this, for Zahalka the success of Arab unity is nothing short of an historic event. “In the history of the Arab people in the 20th and 21st century, there has never been unity between the communists, the nationalists and the Islamists. There is no such thing. And these are the agents of change in the Arab world — these are the ones who must cooperate in order to bring down regimes.”

But why is this unification important in and of itself? What reason do communists have to sit with people from the Islamist Movement, apart from the fact that Liberman decided to raise the threshold in order to keep Arabs out of the Knesset?

Heads of the parties on the Joint List, left to right: Masud Ganaim (Ra’am), Jamal Zahalka (Balad), Iman Odeh (Hadash), Ahmad Tibi (Ta’al). (Courtesy o the Joint List)
Heads of the parties on the Joint List, left to right: Masud Ganaim (Ra’am), Jamal Zahalka (Balad), Ayman Odeh (Hadash), Ahmad Tibi (Ta’al). (Courtesy o the Joint List)

For the same reasons that Mao struck a deal with Chiang Kai-shek: to form a national front. This is one of the most important political lessons of the Left in the 20th century: unity against fascism, racism and colonialism. This is the field we are playing in. Unity brings us back to the basics: we are not part of the Labor-Meretz game; we are an oppressed minority fighting for our rights. From this perspective, uniting prevents a distorted Israelization. We are confronting the regime, not the opposition.

At the end of the day, more than 90 percent of our Knesset voting record is identical. That means that our differences account for less than 10 percent. You won’t find this kind of unity in any other list or party.

So why did it take so long? It seemed like you came out out of the process bruised.

The arguments were a natural part of the process. The parties come from different traditions and there is a lot of bad blood between them. The struggle over the mayoral race in Nazareth left a lot of tension between Hadash and Balad, as well as other parties (the mayoral race, which has traditionally been won by a Hadash candidate, was won by the Ali Salam, partly due to the support he received from Balad. Victory was claimed after a difficult and long period of vote counting, which even made it to court. O.N.), as well as the internal struggles between student groups, etc. It was all very sensitive, and it made it difficult to unite.

The Joint List published seven joint principles, one of them deals with ’67 borders. Has Balad become a supporter of the two-state solution?

We have never opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state, we just say that it will not solve the issue. But is a step in the direction of a solution. The political plan of the Joint List is an end to the occupation. The fact that Balad supports a framework of equality for all citizens, and the fact that our vision did not make it into the political program of the list, does not prevent us from believing in a bi-national state.

Balad struggles to end the occupation, dismantle the settlements, establish a Palestinian state and solve the refugee issue according to UN resolutions. This is our political platform. But there is also a discussion inside Balad over one state, which has been going on for the last two years. Some of the party leaders support this solution and some do not. That is why it is currently being discussed. I believe that the relevance of the two-state solution is fading, and that the moment for a one-state solution has yet to come. That is why our current outlook is entirely pragmatic.

From a political perspective, however, there is a need for an end to the occupation and international legitimacy, etc. So I am willing to make a historic compromise, but under no circumstances will I ever make a compromise over history. I will continue to tell the history of the kibbutzim, but political solutions will be dealt with on a pragmatic level.

Will every political party handle its own campaign, or will there be one campaign?

The Joint List will have one campaign, but that doesn’t mean I do not foresee difficulties.

The campaign will also be directed at the Jewish public?

Hadash has a few thousand Jewish supporters, while Balad has a few hundred. I believe that the Joint List has a potential of getting a few thousand more Jewish votes. And there are a lot of discussions about a Hebrew campaign, since Hadash are used to working in a particular way, and we are ruining that in a way. They are not the only ones who will be able to speak to the Jewish public.

What can Balad offer the Jewish voter? You are seen as an Arab party, not to say Arab nationalist. What interest does a Jewish voter have in supporting the Joint List?

We are the most authentic representatives of the oppressed, and it is the duty of the progressive individual to support the oppressed. This is not a condition. To support those who are screwed over. But this is not a list that represents the interests of the Arab public alone, but rather has a democratic outlook of a state of all citizens. This is the only secular platform in Israel, because only a project of a state of all its citizens can be a secularizing project.

You are often accused of recognizing Palestinian nationalism, but not Jewish nationalism.

We recognize the fact that a Jewish-Israeli nation has come into existence, despite the fact that it is in denial of its own existence. I recognize the right of the Jewish people in Israel to self-determination, not the Jewish people the world over. The main difference between Balad, Hadash, Meretz and others is that I don’t see a state that belongs to the Jewish people. This is the essential difference. The state belongs to the Jewish people, and within this framework the Jewish-Israeli people can fulfill its self-determination, without granting privileges based on nationality or religion.

So you propose the Jewish public do away with these privileges in order to receive… what?

So that my girls and your girls can live freely in a true democracy. So that they can live like human beings. The situation of white people in South Africa didn’t get worse after the fall of apartheid. On the contrary: they became normal in the eyes of the world. This is what I am proposing.

Speaking of appealing to the Jewish public, your well-known quote from the film ‘Ashkenaz,’ while standing at the entrance to a kibbutz, has turned you into a star in some radical Mizrahi circles. It seems like you understand Mizrahi discourse quite well, and yet you have never appealed to the Mizrahim as a political group.

(The full quote from the film: “The Ashkenazim took Palestine from us, not the Mizrahim. It’s not the ones saying “death to Arabs” who took the land from us. It’s the ones who said, ‘we come in peace’ [‘Hevenu shalom aleichem’].”)

We totally miss the Jewish public, and this is one of Balad’s failures. We did not build enough bridges with the Jewish public that is open, at least partially, to the things we are saying. And I admit that we have not written or spoken enough about the Mizrahi question.

But let’s admit the truth: Mizrahim could have been partners to our vision maybe 50 years ago. Today it is much more difficult to turn back the wheels of history.

The Zionist project swallowed the Mizrahim whole?

Yes. A complete Israelization of the Mizrahim. The Mizrahi problem still exists, of course, although I am not sure that the Mizrahi struggle has the political potential to turn into anything. The story of multiculturalism only serves this trend: “Here, take your culture and go have fun on the side. Leave the center to me.” But it is obvious that we must think about the political potential of the Mizrahim in Israel.

I don’t know if you noticed, but Haneen Zoabi does not appear in the first photos released by the Joint List. There was something symbolic in that.

Don’t look for any political meaning behind it. She probably had to run off somewhere.

How are you gearing up for the discussion on her disqualification from running. What will you do if she is disqualified?

We are running a campaign against the disqualification. Legally the case to disqualify her is even weaker than what it was in the past. Even legal experts agree on this. There is a basis to the possibility that the court won’t disqualify her, even under the strictest legal interpretations. The biggest fear is of the politicization of the issue — that the judges will believe that it is very popular to disqualify her and will be tempted to do so.

And if they do so?

If Haneen is disqualified, she will become much more important. It will give the international community ammunition in its campaign against Israel’s discrimination and racism against the Arab public. She will turn into “the MK who was disqualified.” This is a class of its own. I see the huge political potential it would grant us. They won’t disqualify her.

And if they do, will Balad and the Joint List continue to run as usual?

We have yet to come to a decision, we will have to sit down and discuss this. I don’t want to speak in the name of the list, but there will be a response either way.

Looking back, could it be that Zoabi’s contrarian behavior worked against you? Was it a wise move politically?

She has always said and done the right things. The problem is the political system and the media in Israel. We are not willing to pretend and soften our stances because of rampant racism. She’s a woman, an Arab, secular — people don’t know how to deal with that. I am proud of Haneen and will support her no matter what, especially against the racist attacks on her.

How is Azmi Bishara doing?

The truth is that he is no longer very connected. We used to meet every two or three months when he lived in Jordan. But now that he lives in Qatar we meet approximately once a year.

How involved was he in the process behind unifying the parties?

Zero. He was not involved at all. He is dealing with other things, like the research center that he established there. He is slowly disconnecting from everything that is happening here. When we meet, he usually updates us on what is happening in the Arab world more so than we update him about what is happening here. I assume that he is not very surprised by the Joint List — it is something Balad supported since 1999. We just haven’t succeeded until now.

Members of Knesset from the Arab parties negotiating the formation of the Joint List. (Courtesy of Balad)
Members of Knesset from the Arab parties negotiating the formation of the Joint List. (Courtesy of Balad)

Speaking of Bishara and the old guard, why don’t we see new blood in Balad? Even Hadash has brand new faces.

Balad underwent a revolution in 2007 after the Azmi Bishara controversy. The Balad of before is not the Balad of after. Basel Ghattes is a new MK, and this will be Haneen’s third term. Balad has a phenomenal, young generation that is only now coming into its own. But in Israeli politics there is the tragic phenomenon of the second generation. The second generation is always living in the shadow of the founders, this is how it was with the communist party and others. But I believe that the young generation, which is much more successful than us, will have its moment to shine soon.

Do you see the Joint List participating in the government in any way?

Absolutely not. Do you really see a government that will support the end of the occupation, the right of return and granting equal rights to all citizens?

Do you miss the days of doing research?

Look, my research dealt with the chemistry of happiness. And I miss it.

This article was first published on +972’s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it in Hebrew here.

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