Israel’s political establishment was badly shaken this week by the determined, though aborted effort by an Arab Labor Party Knesset member to address the Palestine National Council (PNC) meeting in Amman Jordan, the so-called Palestinian parliament-in-exile, convened by Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat.
But the instant political storm raised by the attempts of Abdel Wahab Darousha, the only Arab on the Labor Party election list last July, to reach Amman via Cyprus, was of secondary importance. Most significant in the long term, political pundits agree, is the political transformation of Israel’s 700,000 Arab citizens that Darousha’s move clearly implies.
The implication is that the majority of Israeli Arabs will no longer settle for the status of passive bystanders in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Their leaders will no longer limit themselves to local issues such as electricity and water supplies or sewage disposal in Israel’s Arab towns and villages. Instead, they are determined to play an active role in the overall political debate that occupies Israeli society.
Until now, such a role was confined to the largely discredited Communist Party in its expanded form known as Hadash, which in past elections attracted the majority of Arab Israeli votes, those of radicals and nationalists alike. The “moderate” Arabs aligned themselves with the Zionist parties, among which Labor and its erstwhile partner Mapam were easily the strongest in the Arab sector.
RESULTS OF THE LAST ELECTIONS
But the results of the last elections showed something amiss. Many Arabs were unhappy with the Communists who blindly followed the party line from Moscow. But instead of switching to Labor, many gave their votes to the Progressive List For Peace, a new faction composed of Arab nationalists and dove-ish Jews, left of center but not Communists.
The Progressive List polled well over 38,000 votes, winning two Knesset seats, as many as the old established Agudat Israel party and former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman’s new Yahad party.
It was a remarkable showing for a new faction that describes the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Darousha has made no such claim.
An official of the Education Ministry in Iksal village near Nazareth, he was an obscure figure until nominated to the Labor Party list. But unlike past Arab Labor candidates who scrupulously followed orders from Party headquarters, Darousha asserted his independence from the start of the election campaign. He spoke openly of the need to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel which is in direct conflict with the Labor Party platform.
He threatened not to join the Labor-Likud unity coalition unless certain demands were met. Then, on Tuesday of this week, without prior consultation with the Labor Party chiefs and, according to them, without even a hint of his intentions, he left for Amman by way of Cyprus.
PURPOSE IN TRYING TO GET TO AMMAN
His purpose, he said, in an interview with the magazine Koteret Rashit, published after his departure, was to address the PNC in his capacity as a Knesset member of the governing coalition, to try to convince the PLO to abandon terrorism in favor of dialogue with Israel and to work toward mutual recognition.
His ambition was probably unrealistic and grandiose — he may have had in mind the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s grand gesture of going to Jerusalem in November, 1977, to start the process that resulted in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, signed two years later. But Darousha is no Sadat.
He never reached Amman. In a brief telephone interview from Nicosia with Israel television, he said his plans were stymied by the Jordanian government’s failure to give its official consent to his visit, despite pressure on his behalf by the PLO. Israel TV had reported Wednesday that both King Hussein and the PLO agreed to allow Darousha to land at Amman and sent a special plane to carry him from Cyprus.
It appears most likely that Darousha was finally persuaded to abandon his mission under intense pressure from Labor Party colleagues. Labor’s Knesset Whip, Rafi Edri, reportedly had 10 telephone conversations with Darousha after he arrived in Cyprus, urging him to return to Israel. Edri acted on orders from Premier Shimon Peres who would have been severely embarrassed by the appearance of a Labor MK before the PNC.
Israel’s official policy is to denounce any contacts with the PLO by other countries. Although a number of Israeli political personalities on the left have met with PLO representatives abroad in recent years, and two of them had a meeting with Arafat in Beirut in 1982, at the height of the Lebanon war, none were members of the governing party and their defection from official policy could be passed off as a private matter.
SERIOUS REPERCUSSIONS FOR PARTY
Edri — and possibly MK Yossi Sarid of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM), one of the Knesset’s most outspoken doves who also reportedly made telephone contact with Darousha — apparently convinced him that the appearance of a Labor MK before the PNC would have serious repercussions for the party and would be counter-productive to Darousha’s stated aims.
He was expected to return to Israel late Thursday. It remains to be seen whether he will suffer for his actions. Justice Minister Moshe Nissim said Wednesday that if Darousha went to Amman he would be in violation of the law and should be punished, even if his motives were ideological. Eliahu Ben-Elissar, a leading Likud MK, said he would support a motion to strip Darousha his parliamentary immunity and prosecute him for illegally entering an enemy country. Inasmuch as Darousha never reached Amman, it is likely that such moves against him will be dropped. He succeeded in embarrassing his party, angering the government and throwing the Knesset into an uproar. But at the same time, he became the first Arab member of a Zionist party to literally try to implement the role traditionally assigned by the establishment to Israel’s Arab citizens, namely to serve as “a bridge to peace” with the Arab world.
Some Israeli hawks see the changing Arab voting patterns and Darousha’s aborted mission as symptoms of the radicalization of Israel’s Arab population and a tendency to align itself with the PLO.
However, many political analysts consider this a simplistic view. The two parties that attract most Arab votes — the Communists and the Progressive List for Peace — while recognizing the PLO as representative of the Palestinians, stress the need for Israeli Arabs to be an integral part of the State of Israel.
They do not deny that they find it hard to make peace with the fact that Israel is a Jewish State by definition. But rather than radicalization, the Arab political community seems to be undergoing a transformation.
The moderates among them will no longer follow blindly the Jewish political establishment. Instead, they will exert their influence to bring about a peaceful settlement by trying to bring Israel and the PLO together. This is the lesson of Darousha’s brief foray into “shuttle diplomacy.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.