Labor’s Arab MK draws leader’s opprobrium for saying Israeli Arabs aren’t free

Labor chief Avi Gabbay says party no place for ‘extremists’ after Zouheir Bahloul decides to skip Balfour Declaration event at Knesset

Zionist Union MK Zouheir Bahloul (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Zionist Union MK Zouheir Bahloul (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The leader of the Labor party on Tuesday said that a statement by an Arab lawmaker from his party claiming that Arab Israelis are not free was “extremist” and untrue.

Avi Gabbay spoke to Israel Radio the day after Labor MK Zouheir Bahloul announced that he would not attend an official Knesset ceremony to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the British government’s landmark expression of approval for the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel. Referring to his Palestinian identity, Bahloul said he felt it would not be appropriate to participate “when I myself am not free.”

“Labor is a party for all Israelis, Arabs, Jews, secular, religious, but I am against extremist statements,” said Gabbay. “It is not a party of extremists, or those who engage in negative discourse,” Gabbay continued. “There is no doubt that they (Arab Israelis) are free.”

Labor party leader Avi Gabbay leads a faction meeting at the Knesset on October 30, 2017.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A person who is elected to the Knesset “but still says he is not a free person, that is someone with whom I have a huge dispute,” he added.

Speaking to Israel Radio after listening to Gabbay’s comments, Bahloul refused to walk back his comments about the Balfour event.

“I don’t understand what is an ‘extreme statement,'” he said, noting, however, that he respected his party leader and had supported his candidacy, he said Gabbay could not complain about his comments.

“What I am doing is a critical test to check if my party is capable of dealing with the reality of Arab Israelis,” Bahloul said.

He dismissed reports that he had been told to leave Labor. “No one is pushing me out of the party, but they are finding it hard to contain their opinions. I will decide when to leave.”

“Is my party, the Labor party, able to deal with the reality of the Arab public?” he asked.

He was not opposed to Israel’s existence or the Balfour Declaration itself, Bahloul insisted, but, he said, “I have a dispute about what Zionism is.”

In the Balfour Declaration, which was issued on November 2, 1917, UK foreign secretary Arthur Balfour told British Jewish leader Lord Walter Rothschild that the UK government “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” It is recognized as a key step that lead to the eventual establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

On Monday Bahloul, who holds his seat in parliament as part of the Zionist Union, an alliance between Labor and Hatnua, told Channel 2 that he would skip the Knesset celebratory event honoring the declaration.

“It is not out of defiance that I will not be attending the session,” he explained. “This is simply not a joint celebration for me and my Jewish friends.”

“What about my people?” he asked. “You (the Jewish people) received the right to self-determination through the Balfour Declaration, while the Palestinian goes completely ignored.”

The lawmaker and popular former sports broadcaster added that he had no problem being a member of a Zionist faction, but celebrating the Zionist character of the state when part of his own identity as a Palestinian remains unrecognized was something he could not accept. “I do not think it would be appropriate to participate when I myself am not free,” Bahloul said.

Close associates of Gabbay told Channel 2 at the time that Bahloul’s remarks “were too extreme and that his place is no longer in the party.” They added that this would be the Arab lawmaker’s last term on the faction list. Gabbay does not have the power to directly remove members, but could urge Labor primary voters to reject Bahloul ahead of the next election.

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