Exclusive: An interview with controversial Arab MK Haneen Zoabi

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN, originally published here 
A few minutes into an interview withThe Jerusalem Post, MK Haneen Zoabi was interrupted by her assistant, who alerted her that Palestinian Authority minister Ziad Abu Ein had died after a confrontation with Border Police.

Zoabi switched on the radio and, listening to the news in Hebrew, was clearly shaken.

The normally outspoken Zoabi described the incident as “shocking,” but refrained from the kind of tirade that has frequently made the Balad party politician the subject of strident controversy for her criticism of Israel’s actions.

She was briefly banned from running for the Knesset in 2012 because of her participation in the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla, which ended in the death of 10 Turkish activists after IDF commandos boarded the ship; and in July was suspended from parliament by the Knesset Ethics Committee for six months, because she said the Palestinians who kidnapped Israeli yeshiva students Eyal Yifrah, Naftali Fraenkel and Gil-Ad Shaer were not terrorists (at the time, it was not known they had been murdered).

Zoabi sat down with the Post to discuss the struggle for her political survival, her political objectives, and those of her party.

“It reflects a political decision, not a legal one,” she said of a December 11 High Court of Justice decision to reject her petition against the ban.

“It was clear the court was influenced by political incitement [against me],” she claimed. “It was the role of the court to be the final barrier to tyranny of the majority, and they did not implement their role.”

In October, she appealed the ruling and spoke passionately to the Knesset, saying that despite the MKs not liking what she had to say, her right to freedom of expression should be upheld. The Knesset voted 68-12 to keep her away, so she appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.

“They didn’t act as judges, but as political figures. [The court’s questions were] more like an investigation,” Zoabi maintained.

According to reports, Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayut had commented during the hearing, “I don’t understand how a person [Zoabi] who proclaims to be an advocate for nonviolence can say about someone who kidnaps children that they are not terrorists.” Responding to Zoabi’s comment that a siege should be placed on Israel rather than negotiations, one justice asked, “How will the occupation end if we don’t negotiate?” Zoabi argues that the line of remarks by the justices did not look at the law, but rather interpreted what she had said in June. “It was not under the authority of the Ethics Committee to judge my political views.” She argued that she had not violated the criteria the committee examines, such as threats to another MK, incitement or humiliating or slandering another MK.

In addition, Zoabi charged, the punishment meted out was disproportionate when compared to that received by other MKs judged by the Ethics Committee in recent years – such as Yaakov Katz, Michael Ben-Ari and Arieh Eldad, all of whom did not receive a six-month ban. “It is disproportionate that the punishment was the maximum one, and it was discriminatory.

There are a lot of MKs who made more extremist speeches or said declarations that were more harmful, and the Ethics Committee did not say anything about them.”

Although the Knesset ban ends in January and the parliament has voted to dissolve itself for elections, she is adamant that there are important discussions she will be prevented from participating in due to the ruling.

“What is important for me is that this decision is delegitimizing me as a parliamentarian and delegitimizing my democratic and political views, based upon my struggle for democracy and the right of the people for equality and justice. It was part of an assassination of my image,” Zoabi said.

The 45-year-old politician recalled that even before she was first elected in 2009, she didn’t expect an easy time in the Knesset – but has been shocked at how her actions have been interpreted and viewed. “I didn’t think people would like my views, because it is part of hatred and hostility toward the other Arab MKs… Fairness means when you disagree with me, you don’t distort my views and you don’t use this distortion in a systematic incitement campaign.”

She said over the years, she has felt dehumanized by constant attacks on her. A July Knesset Channel poll found that 89 percent of Jewish Israelis think Zoabi’s citizenship should be revoked, with 10% opposed.

Zoabi contended that her positions are distorted. “I am a woman, a feminist woman, and for me, justice and personal dignity is a very important value. I wasn’t raised with a nationalist, closed-minded identity. I was raised [with the value of] human respect, that the human being is the most precious thing; not the ideology or land. In the center of my political view and philosophy stands the human being.”

She noted that the outrage over her views and the fact that she received a harsh punishment from the Knesset – for statements supporting sanctions against the state, which academics and activists in Israeli society have also uttered – are “an indication of the weakness of the Israeli political system. There are no political answers to my arguments, and my claims and accusations; if you don’t have a convincing political answer, you start to use hate speech.”

She claimed that if she was Jewish – like outspoken former MK Shulamit Aloni, who passed away in January – she would not have been critiqued by the establishment and elites. Then, “they would not be behind a law that specifically wants to exclude me.”

This “Zoabi Bill” would make it harder for the High Court of Justice to overturn a Central Elections Committee vote to disqualify an MK from running. In December 2012, Zoabi was banned from running for the 19th Knesset due to participation in the Mavi Marmara incident, and findings that she rejected Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state. The High Court overturned the committee’s decision, and Zoabi was reelected as an MK in January 2013.

SHE ASSERTED that her actions are seen as “representing a collective, and the Israeli establishment does not want that the collective; when I represent the Palestinian collective this is more threatening.”

Another aspect she thinks makes her a lightning rod for criticism is that she is an outspoken young woman.

“They expected me to critique the chauvinism of the Arab men; if I do so, then they can call me a rebel. But when this revolutionary woman, I continue the revolution outside the community, implementing it toward the Israeli establishment regarding the same values, then I am provocative.”

Balad is considering running on a combined slate with United Arab List- Ta’al and Hadash, and Zoabi thinks there is a good chance an alliance will be formed.

This will happen “by strengthening our cooperation with the Left movement [Hadash]. We think that one list will increase the belief of the people in politics, because they are so frustrated and don’t believe in Israeli democracy… Currently there are 11 [mandates], the polls tell us we would increase by four to five more seats [together].”

This reflects the fact that voter turnout among Arabs has tended to be around 55%, while among Jews it approaches 70%. With a higher electoral threshold of 3.25% in this election, a united Arab party would be ensured representation and might energize voters.

Zoabi is hopeful going into the next elections, and said she thinks being united with Hadash would also appeal to Jewish voters, noting, “There is no obstacle to having more than one Jew [on the combined list] – and maybe not just from Hadash, maybe from Balad.”

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