Azmi Bishara was a young rising star in the Communist Party of Israel (Rakah) for several years. Since leaving the party after the upheavals of 1989, he and other Arab intellectuals periodically considered establishing a new Arab political party with a progressive-nationalist orientation. After much debate and several false starts, al-Tajammu‘ (Democratic National Assembly) was established in March 1996, shortly before Israeli elections. Al-Tajammu‘ includes former members and supporters of the Communist Party, the Covenant of Equality (an Arab-Jewish movement founded in 1991), the Progressive Movement (including Muhammad Mi‘ari, former MK of the Progressive List for Peace), Abna’ al-Balad (Sons of the Village) and others.
The principle objective of al-Tajammu‘ which defines itself as a nationalist party-in-formation, is to halt the marginalization and “Israelization” of the Arab citizens in the Jewish state. The new party advocates cultural autonomy for the Arab community as a strategy for transforming Israel from a state of the Jewish people to a state of all its citizens (Jews and Arabs). The demands of its immediate program include: the determination of the curriculum of Arab schools by the Arab community; the establishment of an independent, non-government run Arab television station; the participation of the Arab community in decisions concerning the development of the Galilee and the Negev (centers of Arab population); the abolition of the concept of Jewish national land (unavailable for use by Arab citizens); the severing of the links between Zionist institutions (the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund, for example) and the institutions of the state of Israel.
Before the Israeli elections, al-Tajammu‘ entered into an agreement with the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash — the electoral front led by the Communist Party) to form a joint electoral list called “Hadash and al-Tajammu‘.” The joint list received three percent of the total vote and elected five members of Knesset, including Azmi Bishara — two members more than Hadash alone had won in the 1992 Knesset elections. On June 24, 1996, Sara Scalenghe and Steve Rothman interviewed Azmi Bishara in his office at the Israeli Knesset.
Describe this new party and its program.
About one and a half years ago, we began to feel that the Arabs in Israel should have a political project which was not connected to such projects as the Soviet Union or the Arab National Movement or the PLO. These have all collapsed. Now Arabs in Israel are facing a crisis concerning their future.
We thought it time to form an Arab national movement inside Israel which would take into consideration the civic dimension of being Israeli citizens and the national dimension of being part of the Arab nation and the Palestinian people. In recent years, we began to notice that the process of Israelization — the marginalization of Palestinians in Israeli society and a gradual joining of Zionist parties — was accelerating. This was expressed mainly in the last primaries for the Labor Party, when 60,000 Palestinian Arabs joined Labor’s ranks. This was an expression of the crisis in national and political identity. In response to this, we moved to form a new political project, turning citizenship into the basis of our rights in this country, as opposed to the current criteria of ethnic, national or religious affiliation. Secondly, we want to emphasize the national dimension: Arabs are a national minority and not a group of religious minorities. This is a political issue, as well as a cultural issue. What kind of society do we want to build here, a national society recognized by the state as such or a group of religious minorities? National minorities, in addition to their individual civic rights, have group rights, collective rights, which we want to emphasize for the Arabs in Israel. We want to combine both the liberal individual rights of citizens and the collective rights of a national minority. For the first time, we have formed a national movement in Israel with this two-pronged approach. Our vision is to make the question of the Arabs in Israel an issue for the all of Israeli society, to promote a different view of citizenship and the attendant rights.
Why did you enter into an electoral bloc with Hadash and how is this relationship working out after the elections?
Entering the bloc with Hadash was motivated first by the popular demand for unity. There is a feeling among the Arab population in Israel that our votes are lost by forming small lists which have no hope of election. From the beginning, this was a tactical consideration to show the Arab constituency our sense of responsibility not to squander their votes. Since we are a new party and elections were earlier than planned, we did not have enough time to get enough votes on our own. Secondly, the political platform of Hadash, in the Arab sector at least, is the closest to our own, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union and their attempt to rid the party of its Stalinist tendencies. While Hadash does represent some of our progressive views vis-a-vis Arab society, it is, at least, non-religious, and engages with Israeli society at large.
Who were the main supporters of al-Tajammu‘ in the general elections?
It is hard to tell right now. My feeling is that we reached what I call the enlightened progressive national elements in society which, when voting, are not motivated by class-based interests. This is a very inter-class constituency, including elements from the middle class, bourgeoisie and workers. We reached people who are former Labor and Meretz voters, and also first-time voters who were nationalists and, until now, had been very critical of Israeli elections. Hadash and al-Tajammu’ combined took five seats in the Knesset. We were 5,000 votes away from getting a sixth seat.
In the Knesset, we are one parliamentary faction, called Hadash-Balad. It is no longer called Hadash. I do not belong to Hadash. Outside the parliament, we will deal with how we cooperate on an ad hoc basis. Cooperation will depend on the concrete circumstances. In the Knesset, it is clear that we will be together for four years. Whether or not we go together to the elections again remains to be seen. It will depend on the success of our cooperation.
What differentiates al-Tajammu‘ from the other predominantly Arab parties, particularly the United Arab Front?
Nothing in terms of program because they copied our program. This is one sign of the strength of our political discourse, since imitation is a form of praise. We developed this project based on citizenship and national autonomy after many years of writing and theorizing about it.
The United Arab Front is actually a very opportunistic party which, until it made a deal with the Islamic movement, had no chance of winning the elections. We differ, of course, from the Islamic movement on many ideological and political issues. We are a national Arab party with progressive democratic views on family and women’s issues. There is a crucial difference here between us and the other Arab parties. Our movement has people of all ages and from different religious perspectives. In the future, a Jewish organization should be allied with us, but we are not going to organize it for the Jews; they have to organize it for themselves and then we will see how we should cooperate.
Would your group ever cooperate with Islamists on common issues?
In the Knesset, there will be a lot of issues concerning the Arab minority on which we should cooperate. At this time cooperation on concrete political actions outside the parliament is not a strategic option.
What was your position concerning the election for prime minister and what is your position concerning the Netanyahu government?
In response to the Israeli attack on Lebanon, we decided to call for a boycott of both Peres and Netanyahu, but we stopped the campaign against Peres ten days after the ceasefire. We did not change our position; we simply did not campaign for it. When Netanyahu moved ahead of Peres in some polls in the Jewish sector, it would have meant campaigning for Netanyahu. If we had actively campaigned against Peres and Netanyahu, I think there would have been tens of thousands more blank ballots. While statistically, we could not have saved Peres, we consider it politically, culturally and morally important that not 100 percent of Palestinians voted for Peres and the Labor party under those circumstances. The Labor Party does not deserve more support; if anything it deserves less than the 95 percent it received from Palestinian voters.
In the end, Labor’s defeat in the Jewish sector was much worse than they anticipated. We were very influential in increasing the voting rate of Arabs by ten percent and the Labor party knows that this was very useful for Peres. The Netanyahu government is a right-wing government, formed with a coalition of religious parties. The government has no conception of peace. At the same time, it is pragmatic enough to be pressured to make certain concessions. Their agenda is to maintain the status quo of impasses in the balance of power between Israel and the Arab world. There are ideological issues that can become political questions, including the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, “judaizing” the Jews, and intensifying construction plans in East Jerusalem. We will be in conflict with this government on these issues. The new government does signify a deterioration in Arab-Israeli relations and the options for peace in the Middle East. On the main issues concerning the final status talks, the difference between this government and a previous Labor government is not as great as people tend to think. A Labor government would have allowed the existing Palestinian entity to be called a state but would not have allowed any significant independence. The Likud government will insist on autonomy but this will not solve the question of sovereignty. It is very clear that the outcome this new situation will depend a lot on our action as the opposition in the Israeli parliament, as well as the Arab position in the Arab world. It will also depend, to a certain degree, on the Palestinians, whose space for political action is much more limited now than it used to be. Any political action now will face the Palestinian as well as Israeli police forces.
What is your attitude toward the Palestinian Authority and what would be the ideal relationship between Palestinians in Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip?
Although I am very critical of the PA and its role, it is now a very real political force that represents the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and we will have to organize our relationship with it, through both cooperation and criticism. We do not want a patronage relationship with it. We know its limits politically and its lack of sovereignty and its dependency on Israel. The PA should understand, however, that we will not accept any kind of a dictate. It must be a relationship of mutual respect in which they are free to criticize us and we are free to criticize their actions. Other political forces in the Arab sector inside Israel have other approaches to this issue. They blindly support the Oslo agreement without any reservations. We have reservations and criticisms of Oslo. On this question our movement is not as united as on others. We have supporters of Oslo, opponents of Oslo, and those who have reservations about Oslo. The Oslo agreement should not be a basis for our own political programs.
How would you like to see the Oslo agreements change?
I don’t know. There are two possibilities. Either we are moving in the direction of full Palestinian sovereignty in a democratic Palestinian state or we are heading in the direction of an apartheid system. The struggle against apartheid means a struggle for equality. I have been saying this for many years. The existence of a Likud government intensifies the need for action. I support action that recognizes and opposes an apartheid situation.