Maisam Jaljuli and Asaf Yakir are activists in Omdim B'Yachad (Standing Together), a left-wing Arab-Jewish social movement in Israel. They spoke to Daniel Randall from Solidarity about their struggles.
DR: What's your assessment of the newly-formed coalition government, and how can the threat of annexation be resisted?
AY: The main political parties in Israel don't have significantly differing policies, so it's not surprising they've formed a coalition. In some ways it clarifies things, as it makes clear where people stand and who the real opposition is. We need to organise in the streets against the government, and use whatever power we have to push back.
MJ: I agree that it's not surprising. Some people were more optimistic about Gantz, and the prospect of him ousting Netanyahu, but we're seeing his real face now, perhaps sooner than some people thought. Many of us said there were no real differences between Kahol Lavon (Blue and White, Gantz's party) and Netanyahu's right-wing party Likud, but Gantz managed to deceive many voters from the left and centre-left.
Many left-wing and centre-left Zionists feel cheated; they feel Gantz stole their votes on the basis of a false promise to oppose Netanyahu, and he's now helped him retain power. Now it's clear that if you want to be a leftist and oppose the government, you have to be a real leftist. No one is coming to save us, certainly not former generals. We have to organise for ourselves.
Annexation was a threat whatever the outcome of the election. Gantz declared his support for it during the election, and thanked Trump for the so-called “deal of the century”. So we knew it was coming. Now it'll be a reality in a year, maybe six months, unless we can stop it. Netanyahu needs annexation to placate his base.
AY: The movement against annexation must be a peace movement, a movement against the occupation, and a movement for a real two-state framework, not a narrow movement against annexation exclusively.
There's a very vocal layer of middle-class Jewish opinion that is disappointed with Gantz, but almost exclusively for reasons of virtue-signalling rather than substantive politics. The current “Black Flag” movement for democracy and against corruption is part of a long tradition of non-political protest movements in Israel that refuse to challenge the occupation, or racism against the Arab minority within Israel. People attend “Black Flag” demonstration for good reasons, and many people in the movement are open to a more radical politics; I'm talking about the leadership here.
MJ: I oppose Netanyahu's corruption, and I oppose violations of the independence of the judicial system, although it should be remembered that justice system in Israel constantly harms Palestinians. But, while I want to work with people involved, the “Black Flag” movement doesn't really match my values. They're not interested in what's happening in the Occupied Territories, they don't have a socialist framework to their politics. We want to reach out to people who attend their protests to persuade them to go further. The occupation of Palestinian territories and the economic situation inside Israel are connected, and we need to help people to see that.
DR: Would annexation close off the possibility of a viably independent Palestinian state emerging, and therefore make a two-states framework impossible?
AY: Annexation is not the line in the sand, in my view, in terms of closing off the possibility for two states. If that happens, it'll be because of the continuation of a wider set of trends and policies over time. For example, even if annexation is prevented or reversed, if settlement building continues, it will fragment Palestinian territory in such a way as to make a viable state impossible. Fighting for a genuine two-state solution means fighting against the whole occupation, including settlement building.
MJ: There are many voices, across the political spectrum, which say the two-states solution is dead. There are many in my community, the Palestinian community, who hold this view. But I still believe in it. The immediate alternative to a two-state solution is not one democratic state, but Netanyahu's one-state solution, ruled over by a dictator, with the Palestinians living under an apartheid system. This is his vision, for a Greater Israel “from the river to the sea”. Too many Israelis still see the occupation as something distant to them, rather than understanding that it has a damaging effect inside their own society.
DR: Are they any prospects for a renewed political left emerging from the current situation?
AY: Even if this is to be a moment of awakening and radicalisation for the voters of the Zionist left and centre-left, we still wouldn't have a majority. So the left in Israel that wants to build a Jewish-Arab alliance has two key tasks: to convince Arab citizens that it is in their interests to be politically engaged, and that it's worth voting; and to convince Jewish citizens who are currently voting for the right, or not voting at all, that a left-wing programme, including a class-based alliance with Arabs, is in their interests.
Speaking personally, my aim in politics is not to convince people to vote for this or that individual because they have the best policies, but rather to convince working-class people that it's in their class interests in support socialist politics.
MJ: It's wrong to think in terms of “the left” and “Arabs” as separate groups; the majority of Arabs are leftist in terms of the economic policies they support. Without Arab citizens, no real political change will happen in Israel. Standing Together campaigned around this ideas in the election, and we saw it begin to change the discourse for a few months, but now Gantz has shown his true colours.
We need to convince Jewish citizens, including Zionists, that the only way to change the regime in Israel – to change the government, to change society – is as part of a class-based alliance with not only Arabs, but which also includes Ethiopian communities, poor Jews from the former Soviet states, and other marginalised groups. They all need to be part of the struggle to change the regime. That's the basis for building a new left.
AY: Many people talk about formation of new parties or new structures, but they have no social base that could drive those initiatives forward. Even if new parties are formed, and even if they succeeded in getting a few people elected to the Knesset, that's not enough. Our job is to build social power on all fronts – through trade unions, through social movements like Standing Together, and through existing left-wing parties like Hadash, and whatever can be salvaged from the parties of the Zionist left like Meretz.
DR: What are Standing Together's current campaigns?
AY: Prior to the election, we organised a large protest in Tel Aviv against annexation, and were involved in some smaller protests in areas under threat of annexation. Currently we're organising campaigns that focus on economic and social demands in the context of the coronavirus crisis.
The government's response to the pandemic has been very bad. Only 5% of GDP has been spent on aid and relief, even less of which has actually found its way into people's pockets. We're running two main campaigns, one demanding 100% financial relief for workers, including self-employed workers, which would involve wage subsidies as well as other forms of relief. The other campaign, mainly led by students, demands rent freezes and rent relief.
We're also starting new media projects: one is the “Hope Channel”, which is an online platform that will host Zoom conferences and forums. We recently held one on the issue of annexation. The other is a daily podcast, inspired by the format of Novara Media's “Burner” podcast, which will produce short daily episodes on political issues from a socialist perspective.
MJ: These campaigns and projects are drawing new people into our orbit, and we're seeing more people join and become activists. The campaigns connect with the problems of everyday life. We want to expand activity beyond the online sphere as soon as we can.
AY: Even during the lockdown, we've been doing some stickering and flyering around supermarkets, taking up the question of food prices, using slogans like “we can't pay 100% of the price if we don't have 100% of our wage.” These campaigns give us an opportunity to reach out to people who aren't currently politically active, but who, under the pressure of the economic situation and the coronavirus crisis, are thinking more about these issues. As and when the lockdown eases, we will be able to do more.
MJ: It's important to understand that the struggles people are facing aren't “caused by” the coronavirus crisis. They're caused by neoliberal policies. We need to give people a way of understanding that, and showing how a socialist political and economic programme can provide answers.
DR: What about other demands? For example, in the UK, we're raising the demand for the requisitioning of private healthcare, and of private industry to manufacture necessary medical supplies, including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers.
AY: From what I've read, the situation in the NHS seems worse than the situation here. Healthcare workers mainly have the equipment they need, so that's not a primary focus. Our focus has been on advocating a wider economic plan. Koach L'Ovdim (“Power To Workers”, a radical trade union centre independent of the Histadrut, the mainstream union federation) has also put forward a programme of demands.
MJ: The crisis is shining a light on the differences between the centre and the periphery in Israel. There are visible differences in terms of the effects on the virus depending on people's socio-economic status and background. For example, extensive testing in the Arab areas of Israel started two and a half weeks after it began in Jewish areas. This is also part of our struggle. Almost a third of health workers in Israel are from Arab backgrounds, so the Arab citizens who are on the frontline of helping us confront the virus are then going back to their communities and not being able to access testing. The virus doesn't discriminate between Arabs and Jews, there has to be equality in terms of access to treatment and testing. The struggle for equal access to healthcare is key, for Arabs but also for other marginalised groups such as asylum seekers in Tel Aviv.
DR: How has the pandemic affected life in the Occupied Territories?
MJ: The Palestinian Authority understood that they simply did not have the healthcare infrastructure to cope with a severe spread of the virus, so they implemented very comprehensive lockdown measures very early on. It's a joke amongst Palestinians in the Occupied Territories that, since they're used to the occupation, lockdown conditions are easy for them to deal with. People are abiding by the restrictions of the lockdown, because they know that if the virus spreads in the Occupied Territories then healthcare would simply be overwhelmed, and Israel is not prepared to help.
Palestinian workers who travel into Israel to work, for example in the construction industry, have been very badly mistreated. When the lockdown was imposed in Israel, they were made to stay in very poor conditions, in temporary dormitories in and around construction sites. They weren't given access to testing, and anyone suspected of having the virus was simply sent back to the Occupied Territories. The PA is worried that these workers returning could spread the virus.
DR: And in Gaza?
AY: It's more difficult to know, as there are far fewer opportunities to meet people from Gaza.
MJ: Our podcast was due to feature activists from Gaza, but we cancelled it after Hamas arrested some young activists for participating in a Zoom call with Israelis on the basis that they were “normalising” relations with Israel. Hamas is repressing freedom of speech; these activists weren't speaking to the Israeli authorities, they were speaking to Israelis who want to end the occupation. We condemn the repression of political activists in Gaza.
Standing Together has held many demonstrations near the Gaza border against the occupation, against the blockade, and against attacks on Gaza and killings at the border. There is also a campaign amongst Arabs in Israel, which has been set up around Ramadan, to raise material support for the people of Gaza. The virus is not widespread there because of the restriction placed on people's movement, but because of the blockade the economic situation is much worse
DR: What can socialists internationally do to support your activities?
MJ: It's so important for the international left to simply be aware of our existence and our activities. We're affected by BDS movements which tell people it's wrong to make direct links with anyone in Israel – which, as a Palestinian citizen of Israel, really makes me sad. We're the people on the ground who are fighting the right wing in Israel, who are opposing the occupation. It's a shame when people refuse to acknowledge us and stand in solidarity with our struggles.
Any financial support is hugely appreciated. Our main source of income is from our members and supporters; people can donate via our website. The left internationally needs to look at each other's struggles and learn from each other.
AY: In December, myself and four friends travelled to London to canvas for Labour in the general election, mainly in Finchley and Golders Green and Hendon Central. Although people were surprised that we'd come, most were very friendly and welcoming. However, we did encounter some people who seemed surprised at the idea of leftist Israelis. So while I understand and can sympathise with BDS movements, they can become an obstacle to direct solidarity with the Israeli left.
While we value any direct support and solidarity anyone can give, the best thing activists in the UK could do is work to elect a socialist government in Britain. Although it's not always helpful to talk about what could have been, had Labour won the election in December, a left-wing, Corbyn-led government taking a stand on the international stage against occupation, against annexation, and for a real two-states solution would have been immensely powerful and beneficial for our struggles. Socialists internationally working to change the policy of their own national governments towards the occupation is itself an act of solidarity.