The Paradox of Ahmad Tibi, Palestinian and Israeli

Meet the man who is both a Knesset member and the most strident critic of Israeli democracy.

Here's a real paradox: The most strident critic of Israel's democracy is also the man who embodies the country's most liberal and tolerant values. Last month, he made headlines, and annoyed many Israelis, when he served as a member of the Palestinian Authority's UN delegation, headed by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, as it submitted its request for UN acceptance of "Palestine" as a full member state. That request, tantamount to a Palestinian declaration of independence, is currently being deliberated—or stalled, at Washington's insistence—in the Security Council.

Ahmad Tibi, a colorful, sharp-tongued 53-year-old Israeli Arab member of the Knesset (Israel's parliament) and one of its deputy speakers, has over the years consistently denounced the country as an "apartheid state" and called for its transformation from a "Jewish state" into a "state of all its citizens" or a "state of all its national [ethnic] groups.” He seeks recognition of the Israeli Arabs as a "national minority.” He defines himself, like many others among Israel's 1.3 million Arabs, as a "Palestinian Arab with Israeli citizenship" (as there are, for instance, Palestinian Arabs living in Jordan with Jordanian citizenship).

Many Israeli Jews, of whom there are close to 6 million, fail to understand how an Israeli MK can at the same time serve the Palestinian Authority—representing, as it were, Israel's chief political enemy—and why Israeli authorities would allow such a situation to persist. But Tibi enjoys parliamentary immunity and has beaten off legal challenges to his MK status in the Israeli Supreme Court.

Tibi, who has been a member of the Knesset since 1999 and currently heads the Arab Movement for Renewal—Ra’am-Ta’al—Party, was a Palestinian official between 1993 and 1999. During that time he served the legendary PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, Abbas's predecessor, as his "adviser on Israeli affairs.” During the tripartite Wye River summit in 1998, when President Bill Clinton mediated an agreement between Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Arafat on the implementation of the Oslo Agreement provisions for gradual Israeli withdrawal from areas of the West Bank, Tibi served as the Palestinian delegation's spokesman. Since 1999 Tibi has continued, sporadically, to serve as an adviser on Israeli affairs to Arafat and then Abbas, but he apparently holds no official title. It is unclear whether he receives any benefits from the Palestinian Authority.

Tibi was born in the Arab village of Taibeh in central Israel, just across the border from the West Bank, to 1948 refugees from Jaffa. He received a medical degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem but never completed his specialization in gynecology. His wife, May, is a dentist.

He was politically active as a student and first met Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Arafat in Tunis in 1984, when such meetings were illegal. Israel at the time deemed the PLO a terrorist organization (though in 1993 Israel recognized it as as the representative of the Palestinian people). He was periodically interrogated by the police and once was briefly prohibited from exiting Israel, but was never tried or seriously punished for the infraction. An effort in 2006 by Likud MKs to outlaw his party and bar Tibi's list from running for the Knesset on the grounds of "supporting terrorism" was thrown out by the Israeli Supreme Court, and in the 2009 general elections his Ra’am-Ta’al list won four seats, making it the largest Arab party in the country. Tibi is very popular among Israeli Arabs, not least because he raised funds for the construction of the Doha Stadium in the Israeli Arab town of Sakhnin, which has the best Israeli Arab football (soccer) team and is in Israel's premier league.

Tibi has said that Israel "is only a democracy for Jews" and has been accused of using democratic means to subvert Israel. "His place is in Ramallah [the West Bank seat of the Palestinian Authority] and not in Israel," Avigdor Liberman, Israel's foreign minister and head of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu Party, has said. Tibi responded that Liberman is a "Fascist immigrant,” a reference to Liberman's Russian origins.

But Tibi is not completely consistent in what can be deemed anti-Israel positions. In 2010 he condemned Holocaust denial, which is widely embraced in the Arab world, and expressed sympathy for Holocaust victims, as for victims of all types of racism. He regards the Palestinians as "victims of the [Jewish] victims [of the Holocaust]." At the Palestinian commemoration of the forty-second anniversary of the founding of Fatah, the party headed by Abbas that historically led the Palestinian national movement, he spoke of Palestinian "shuhada" (martyrs) in the struggle against Israel.

Tibi ostensibly supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with a Palestinian Arab state living in peace side by side with Israel. But he also supports the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees—an “unalienable right,” he says—to homes and lands within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. There are currently on UN rolls some 5 million Palestinian refugees consisting of those surviving from 1948 and their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, mostly living in Gaza and the West Bank and educated to hate Israel. Such a return would threaten Israel's existence. He regards the Israeli settlements in the West Bank as a "cancerous growth." And he supported attacks by Hezbollah and Hamas on citizens of the country in whose legislature he sits.

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