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Don’t Cheer on the Joint List

The Arab party made history when it endorsed a Jewish candidate for Israel’s prime minister. Sadly, it is still a haven for terrorism supporters.

Liel Leibovitz
September 23, 2019
Member of the Joint List Ayman Odeh, at left, reacts next to Ahmad Tibi, right, during a consultation with the Israeli president, to decide whom to task with trying to form a new government, in Jerusalem, on Sept. 22, 2019MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images
Member of the Joint List Ayman Odeh, at left, reacts next to Ahmad Tibi, right, during a consultation with the Israeli president, to decide whom to task with trying to form a new government, in Jerusalem, on Sept. 22, 2019MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

When the Joint List, the Arab party that emerged as Israel’s third largest in the recent round of elections, endorsed Benny Gantz as its candidate for prime minister on Sunday, pundits took to every available perch to declare the moment historic. After all, no Arab party has ever endorsed a Jewish leader, and Ayman Odeh, the party’s Obama-esque leader, seized the moment properly by tweeting a line from Psalms. To many, this felt like a breath of fresh air, a surge of coexistence and compromise after Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line policies.

The hosannas, however, are premature: The Joint List, sadly, remains a vehemently anti-Zionist party whose members have often expressed their support for convicted terrorists. All it takes is a brief look at the party and its principles to learn why Gantz—whose Blue and White party is currently Israel’s most popular, with 33 Knesset seats—should immediately and forcefully reject this endorsement.

Most egregious among the party’s members, perhaps, is Heba Yazbak. A doctoral student studying gender and colonialism at Tel Aviv University, Yazbak has occasionally taken to Facebook to praise convicted terrorists, most notably Samir Kuntar. On April 22, 1979, Kuntar, the teenage son of a wealthy Lebanese family, landed a rubber dingy on the shore of the northern Israeli town of Nahariya. Together with three other terrorists, he shot and killed a police officer before breaking into the apartment of the Haran family and taking them hostage. Smadar, the family’s mother, managed to hide with her 2-year-old daughter, Yael. Fearful that the toddler’s cries will give them away, she stifled the child’s whimpers, accidentally suffocating her to death. Kuntar then led the family father, Danny, to the nearby beach, together with his 4-year-old daughter, Einat. When IDF soldiers arrived to free the hostages, Kuntar executed Danny in front of his daughter’s eyes. He then grabbed Einat, and, using the butt of his rifle, smashed her head against a nearby rock.

Kuntar was released from Israeli prison in 2008 in return for the bodies of two fallen Israeli soldiers. He received a hero’s welcome from Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, and continued to plan attacks against Israelis, earning himself an international terrorist designation from the United States Department of State. He was killed in 2015 in a strike south of Damascus, which many believe was orchestrated by Israel.

In addition to praising Kuntar, Yazbak also publicly supported an Israeli-Arab citizen indicted for being a Hezbollah spy. Israel’s Supreme Court—which approved the disqualification of two far-right politicians for alleged incitement to violence—found no problem with Yazbak’s opinions, allowing her to run for office.

The court also reversed the disqualification of the Joint List’s sole Jewish member, Ofer Cassif, who compared Israeli policies to the Nazis, called former Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked “neo-Nazi scum,” and claimed that Israel was guilty of perpetrating a “creeping genocide” against its Palestinian neighbors.

The hits keep on coming: The party’s No. 2, Mtanes Shehadah, started 2019 by posting a photo of himself hugging Samir Sarsawi, a terrorist who had spent 30 years in jail for throwing hand grenades on Jewish pedestrians in Haifa. Shehadah called Sarsawi “a political prisoner.” He was introduced to voters at an event earlier this year that began with attendees singing the Palestinian national anthem and offering greetings to Azmi Bishara, the former Israeli-Arab MK who fled the country after being accused of spying for Hezbollah, and Bassel Ghattas, another Israeli-Arab MK who has served a prison sentence for smuggling cellphones to a convicted Palestinian terrorist.

Just behind Shehadah, at No. 3, is Ahmed Tibi, the former adviser to Yasser Arafat. A popular fixture with Arab leaders the world over, Tibi has cozied up to anyone from Bashar Assad to Muammar al-Qaddafi. In 2012, he was reprimanded by the Knesset after delivering a speech in Ramallah to celebrate the International Day of Shaheeds, or martyrs. “The occupier wants to call you terrorists,” he said, “but we say there’s nothing more noble than dying for your homeland.” The Knesset’s Ethics Committee denounced Tibi, calling his speech “cheering on terrorism and violence.”

These extreme positions should surprise no one who has been following the Joint List, which is made up of four disparate Arab Israeli parties. One of these parties, Ra’am, is closely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and was blasted by Knesset members left and right in 2011 after using public funds to purchase trophies celebrating the violent anti-Israel activists aboard the Mavi Marmara, the ship chartered by a radical Islamist group that tried to break through the Israeli blockade and reach Hamas-controlled Gaza. Aboard that ship was Hanin Zoabi, a former MK with Balad, another faction that currently makes up the Joint List. After three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered by Palestinians in 2014, Zoabi refused to denounce those responsible as terrorists, arguing that they had no choice but to use violence until “Israel sobers up.” Zoabi also made headlines for accusing Israel of harvesting the organs of Palestinian prisoners, and retired from politics after being investigated for a host of fraudulent activities. In 2017, she gave a speech arguing that “Zionism is hostile to human rights all over the world,” and that Jews had no right for self-determination. She is still considered a hero in her party.

The Joint List’s leading faction, Hadash, is just as troubling. Historically tethered to the Israeli Communist Party, Hadash has evolved in recent years as a staunchly pro-Assadist party, staging demonstrations in Tel Aviv calling to investigate the worldwide “conspiracy against Syria.”

That a party like the Joint List—which is fiercely anti-Zionist and advocates turning Israel from a Jewish state into a binational one—can emerge as the nation’s third largest is a testament to Israel’s robust and vibrant democracy, the very one perpetually eulogized by sophisticated columnists in liberal newspapers the world over. But there is only one thing Benny Gantz must now do with this endorsement, which is reject it vociferously and unequivocally. For all its rhetorical juggling and masterful use of social media, the party hasn’t changed its basic stance, one that calls for the destruction of Israel as it currently stands. Nor has it taken any steps to discipline its many members for cheering on terrorists and murderers. It should be denounced and ostracized, even—or particularly—in these uncertain political times.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.