Can a new Jewish-Palestinian party breathe life into the Israeli left ?

Benn Reiff

+972 Magazine  /  December 21, 2022

‘All its Citizens’ wants to unite the left in Israel around the principle of complete equality for all. But can they even agree on what that looks like ?

Tel Aviv’s Abraham Hostel is hardly the ideal location for the public launch of a new Jewish-Palestinian political party, even if it has become something of a hub for left-wing organizing in the city in recent years. As the registration line outside the hostel’s event hall wound around the corner and down the stairs late last Friday morning, attendees jostled for space in the narrow corridors with pajama-clad American teenagers exiting the elevators in search of breakfast. Inside, the snooker and foosball tables limited the number of rows of chairs that staff could lay out. A gaggle of latecomers sat down on swinging benches that hang permanently from the ceiling at a 90-degree angle from the stage; there, a makeshift banner bore the name of the new party in Hebrew and Arabic: All its Citizens.

“If a Jewish-Arab [Palestinian] party existed in 1948, we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in today,” declared Faisal Azaiza, the party’s Palestinian co-chair, in his opening speech before a crowd of around 200 people. Throughout Israel’s history, he continued, “there have been Jewish parties with Arab [Palestinian] representatives, and Palestinian parties with Jewish representatives, but there has never been a true Jewish-Palestinian party with full partnership.”

Azaiza, the Dean of Faculty for Social Welfare and Health Sciences at the University of Haifa, is spearheading the initiative together with Avraham “Avrum” Burg, who served as speaker of the Knesset at the turn of the century during his time in parliament as a representative of the Labor Party, before later joining the left-wing Hadash party. Burg has been trying for some time to establish a Jewish-Palestinian political faction: in late 2020, he was one of several Jewish former Knesset members behind an open call to launch such a party, which didn’t get off the ground at the time.

Now, however, the circumstances have changed. The near-total erasure of the parliamentary left in last month’s election has opened up a vacuum for a realignment of forces, and a renegotiation of the boundaries of what is ideologically possible and strategically necessary for the approaching fight against a Kahanist-inflected government. And at Friday’s conference, there was an appetite for fresh thinking and the bridging of conventional divides.

Former Knesset members from the Zionist-left Meretz party and the Palestinian nationalist Balad party — both of which were wiped out in the election — spoke one after another on the same stage about the idea of a state of all its citizens. They were joined by civil society leaders, local activists, academics, and writers, and watched by a crowd that overwhelmingly comprised Ashkenazi Jews over the age of 50. The kids, it seemed, hadn’t got the memo, and only a handful of Palestinians, besides those behind the initiative themselves, showed up.

Conspicuous in their absence were any official representatives from the only party in Israel that does profess to be left-wing and Jewish-Palestinian in character: Hadash. The party’s leader, Ayman Odeh, declined the organizers’ invitation to speak at the conference on the grounds that there is no room for another party in the current political landscape.

A partnership of equals ?

The phrase “a state of all its citizens” carries a lot of baggage in Israeli politics, as it is often counter-posed to Israel’s present self-definition as a “Jewish and democratic state,” and thus considered by many Israelis to be the very embodiment of anti-Zionism. It is technically illegal as a political program: one of Israel’s Basic Laws (which hold constitutional status) asserts that a party or candidate can be disqualified from running in elections if their platform negates “the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

The Jewish Nation-State Law, passed in 2018, further entrenched Israel’s constitutionally Jewish identity, declaring explicitly: “The realization of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is exclusive to the Jewish people.” When Israeli model and actress Rotem Sela criticized the Likud party’s anti-Palestinian racism on social media ahead of the election the following year, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded: “Israel is not a state of all its citizens… According to the basic nationality law we passed, Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people — and only it.”

Transforming Israel into a state of all its citizens has long been a central pillar of Balad’s platform, and Israel’s Central Elections Committee routinely disqualifies the party on these grounds ahead of elections, only for the decision to be overturned by the Supreme Court. When, in response to the proposed Nation-State Law, Balad submitted a Basic Law proposing to enshrine Israel as a state of all its citizens, the Knesset Presidium refused to allow it to go to vote. Meretz, meanwhile, toes the line by asserting that Israel is simultaneously “the state of the Jewish people and all its citizens.”

The tension between these two interpretations was on full display in the speeches by members of each party on Friday. From Meretz, Mossi Raz pointed to the provisions in Israel’s Declaration of Independence that promise to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all inhabitants,” while Gaby Lasky emphasized the need to protect the rights of minorities in Israel — at which point, somebody in the audience shouted out: “What minority? Arabs [Palestinians] are the majority here!”

Balad chair Sami Abu Shehadeh noted that among all the talk of civic equality in the previous speeches, there was scant discussion of national equality and all that entails — including granting Palestinian refugees the right of return. “We want to be partners, but partnership must be based on a foundation of full equality,” he told the crowd. The party’s most prominent Jewish representative, Einat Weizman, echoed this sentiment, challenging the premise of a “partnership of equals” in a reality of asymmetry and affirming the need for a Palestinian-led struggle for decolonization.

This dissonance between a liberal discourse and a more radical discourse was ever-present throughout the day. While some spoke of ending the occupation and Israeli-Palestinian peace, others spoke of transforming the whole area between the river and the sea into a shared home for both nations. Alon Liel, a former diplomat who is among those behind the initiative, made clear to the audience after Abu Shehadeh’s speech that although the party does not define itself as Zionist, it can be a home for people who do; Shuli Dichter, the former CEO of the Hand in Hand bilingual school network, spoke of the need to reconstitute Zionism for a new era.

These tensions and contradictions are the inevitable result of bringing together individuals and parties that have not traditionally considered themselves to be close allies. For the past year and a half, Meretz was part of the so-called “government of change,” which was responsible for a whole host of abuses of the rights of Palestinians; Balad, meanwhile, generally refuses to even recommend a candidate for the premiership, let alone consider joining a government. But with last week’s conference, All its Citizens sought to highlight what the parties and their leaders do have in common, and to open up new possibilities for cooperation.

And, of course, it wants to grow its own membership and become an influential player in the Israeli political arena come the next election. “We need to be where the decisions are made, and that’s the Knesset,” Faisal Mahajna, an activist from Umm al-Fahm who is part of the initiative, told +972 on Friday. “And so long as [this effort is] not based on real Arab [Palestinian]-Jewish partnership, there’s no possibility of building an alternative form of government.”

Slim prospects

“There comes a moment, after years of trying, when all the blocks fall into place,” the party’s co-chair Burg told +972 a few days after the conference, adding that the moment is ripe for something new after the recent election results. “You have three parties talking about equality in the [left-wing] sphere: Meretz, which has an Arab [Palestinian] as a fig leaf; Hadash, which has a Jew as a fig leaf; and Balad, which has its own nationalist baggage. We’re offering a different kind of politics not organized around the ethnic community but around the civic idea that every citizen is equal.”

The invitation to these parties’ representatives to speak at the conference last week was, Burg explained, both an invitation to meet together and an invitation to join the party. “We say to everyone in this realm: come and talk. Maybe we’re closer to each other, maybe we’re further from each other, but we will never know if we don’t explore it.” The idea, he said, is to unite the existing left-wing parties in “a merger or a front,” and he believes All its Citizens can be “the new meeting ground” for that to happen.

The party does not define itself as Zionist or anti-Zionist, but will be “a federation of many ideological trends that agree upon one thing: all Israelis should be equal,” said Burg. “There are liberal Zionists who believe that this equality is possible within their definition of Zionism — so be it. There are many who believe it’s impossible so they are not Zionists — so be it. As long as we agree that all citizens are equal, I’m fine with your departure point.” Burg added that the party is planning several more meetings across the country, and is also exploring the possibility of standing in next year’s municipal elections.

Balad’s Abu Shehadeh was criticized in some quarters for agreeing to participate in Friday’s conference, but he told +972 this week that people misunderstood the context of the event. “There was a meeting in Jaffa after the election between me, Avrum Burg, and Mossi Raz to think about the future, and we said we should hold more meetings to discuss important things [regarding] our political agenda. This was one of those meetings, to discuss the issue of Arab [Palestinian]-Jewish relations in this part of the world. And I went there to explain how Balad thinks about this.”

While describing those leading the initiative as “great people,” Abu Shehadeh isn’t optimistic about their prospects. “They know that their potential is small, which is why they invited people from Balad and from what is left of Meretz. In terms of political power, there is a big difference,” he said, noting that Balad — which ran alone in last month’s election for the first time since the proportion of votes required to enter the Knesset was raised to 3.25 percent ahead of the 2015 election — was only 15,000 votes short of crossing the threshold and receiving four seats.

“I told them that our goal in the near future is to organize Balad better and to strengthen the party,” he explained. “Of course, we’ll be very happy to discuss all issues to do with justice, equality for all, and democracy with anyone who’s interested in discussing them. They can either join Balad, because this is our political agenda, or we can collaborate.”

Abu Shehadeh does not, however, expect large numbers of Jewish Israelis to start supporting the idea of a state of all its citizens anytime soon. “Balad has many more Jewish supporters than we saw in that meeting, but we’re talking about very small groups — not enough to be politically influential.” The problem, according to him, is that most Jews in Israel are unwilling to relinquish the privileges they enjoy under the current system. “The Jewish majority are here as a result of a settler-colonial project, and they are not ready to give up the fruits of that project. Israel is a racist state built on Jewish supremacy, and there is a consensus on this across all the Zionist parties.”

Ben Reiff is a writer and activist from the UK