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Joint (Arab) List MK Dov Khenin attends a protest of Ethiopians from the Absorption Center in Mevaseret Zion near the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Joint (Arab) List MK Dov Khenin attends a protest of Ethiopians from the Absorption Center in Mevaseret Zion near the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Interview'Some people feel everything's lost. I think they are wrong'

The MK who says he’s leaving the Knesset to save Israel’s democracy

Dov Khenin, the opposition’s most prolific legislator, laments that in 13 years he ‘failed to change the general direction of society.’ He’s not giving up; he is altering course

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Main image by Yonatan Sindel / Flash90

​The announcement earlier this month that Dov Khenin, one of the most prolific and progressive of Israel’s lawmakers, would be retiring from the Knesset was met with that rarest of commodities — cross-party consensual regret.

In heartfelt farewell messages from across the spectrum, Knesset members joined together in cheering the veteran parliamentarian, a member of the divisive and often-chastised Joint (Arab) List, as a highly skilled legislator who they had come to value as both a colleague and a friend.

Khenin, who will leave the Knesset following the April elections after 13 years as an MK, is a rare breed in more ways than one.

Originally entering parliament as the sole representative of the Israeli Communist Party, he has been the only Jewish member of the Joint List, the first ever united party of Arab Israeli factions. And yet, Khenin has displayed an almost unmatched ability to build parliamentary coalitions in order to pass countless laws, consistently outpacing his fellow lawmakers as the author of the most legislation written by an individual MK.

The anomaly of being an immensely successful legislator from Israel’s deeply marginalized far-left is not lost on Khenin, nor are the other paradoxes in both his parliamentary career and future vision for the State of Israel. “I was able to change many, many things, but from within the Knesset, I was not able to change the general direction of Israeli society,” he told The Times of Israel in a farewell interview last week.

Dov Khenin on the Greenpeace flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, anchored at the Ashdod port as a part of its journey across the Mediterranean and Europe, September 7, 2008. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

Born to communist activist parents — his father David was one of the early leaders of the Israeli Communist Party — Khenin came to political activism at a young age, refusing to be deployed to the West Bank during his military service in the late 1970s. In 2002, following decades as an activist attorney and professor of political science, he took the helm of Haim v’Sviva (“Life and Environment”), an umbrella organization of Israeli environmental groups. Becoming an MK in 2006, he vowed to work to advance the causes of what he describes as the four pillars of his worldview, “peace, democracy, equality, social justice.”

From expanding protection for juvenile criminals to helping extend paid maternity leave to 14 weeks, introducing full transparency in the powerful Israel Lands Authority to the unparalleled pollution-regulating Clean Air Law, the list of the over 100 laws that Khenin has succeeded in pushing through the Knesset — a record for an opposition MK — is dizzying. But, as he leaves parliament, the long-time critic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government bemoans that he has hit a wall in his ability to engender change in “the general direction of Israeli society.”

Khenin’s undying belief in his ability to bring about such a change is also somewhat of a paradox, one that’s reflected in a tempered but still very tangible optimism in his vision for a more equal and socially minded Israel.

On the one hand, he’s “sure that such mobilization will occur,” promising that a mass public movement dedicated to such principles will “force Israeli politics and Israeli politicians to begin to change direction on the issues of peace and relations between Jews and Arabs, and in social justice and democracy.”

You have to go deeper into the social fabric of Israeli society in order to have a real impact on the deeper trends of the sea, instead of remaining on the boat and trying to fight against the current

On the other, Khenin says he fears for the future of the country, warning that Israel is moving — albeit slowly — further away from democratic norms and toward, even, tyranny.

His concerns cover Israel’s lack of progress toward a peace settlement with the Palestinians, a “growing gap between Jews and Arabs within Israel,” and the country’s skewed economic priorities — which he says have created a situation in which huge swathes of the population are “left behind.” Urgently, too, Khenin says there is also currently a “concentrated attack on Israeli democratic space” that could lead to the literal end of the only democracy in the Middle East.

Specifically, with Netanyahu facing possible indictment in three separate corruption cases, Khenin coldly warns that the prime minister “will do whatever’s needed, whatever’s needed whatsoever, in order not to go to prison.”

Riots in the streets? A war to serve as a distraction? Anything, absolutely anything, is possible, Khenin repeats. “The ship of Israeli society is moving in a bad and very dangerous direction,” he argues.

The outgoing lawmaker insists he won’t despair and has far from given up hope. For 13 years Khenin battled for change from within the Knesset. Now, he says, he is taking the fight to the public.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our interview, which was conducted in a mixture of Hebrew and English.

The Times of Israel: You’re coming to the end of a 13-year career in the Knesset. You’ve been described as one of the most successful legislators of recent years. Do you think your time in Knesset has been a success?

Dov Khenin: Yes, for sure. I’m exiting the Knesset with a lot of satisfaction, and I’m not leaving because I’m tired. I am leaving with a belief that the Knesset is an extremely interesting and important place where I would like good people to be and to be involved. I’ve been able to pass more than 100 different laws that exist now in the Israeli law books. This is a huge number, but the real question is not the number of the laws, the real question is the content.

In that very sense, I’m proud of a lot of feminist laws I worked on including the enlargement of the maternity leave, and many laws protecting workers and workers’ rights. Also many laws that deal with human rights, including the rights of prisoners, and including the only LGBT law that was ever passed in the Knesset — a revolutionary law that prohibits any kind of discrimination based on sexual preference or gender identity — which is exceptional in Israeli legislation. Of course, also the environmental revolution in legislation, specifically the Clean Air Law forcing polluters to pay and implementing environmental enforcement, as well as many, many other laws.

I have also been part of significant successes in stopping very dangerous moves — anti-democratic and anti-social legislation.

In recent years, the strength of the coalition has grown to the point where some have described the Knesset as a rubber stamp for the government, preventing opposition MKs from having any influence.  How have you succeeded in breaking that hegemony?

Well, this is professional work and has to be treated as such, by knowing the procedures and the rules of the game very, very well, but also exploiting all kinds of opportunities because also within the coalition there are divisions and tensions. I always say that for each law, there is only one moment. You should use it. If you miss this one moment, then perhaps you will not be able to pass the legislation at all.

Joint (Arab) List MK Dov Khenin attends a Knesset committee meeting, November 02, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Once you are aware of all the complexities that exist within the Knesset, and when you’re able to use them in conjunction with parliamentary procedure, then we can get to the key issue of the ability to cooperate with other people. To create this cooperation, you must be able to give your partners a real interest to work with you. That is the most crucial factor to success in the Knesset.

Could you pinpoint any failures in your time in the Knesset? 

I spoke about the more than 100 laws I was able to pass, but there are more than 100 laws that I was not able to pass. Of course, I would still like them to. But I have to tell you openly that when I entered Knesset, I had a list of my concrete goals for the next five years. And actually, I not only completed all of them but much more than that.

What was top of the list?

The top priority was the Clean Air Law, and I achieved it in less than three years after being elected, but there are many, many things that I couldn’t imagine I would be able to pass so soon. For example, the Prisoners’ Rights Law. This was a revolution. As a result, the Supreme Court, when interpreting this legislation, said that the government needed to free many prisoners because they do not have enough space to house them humanely. That is a direct consequence. It is very, very important legislation.

In some sense, it feels like perhaps your time in Knesset is a paradox. On the one hand, you have achieved vast cooperation across party lines. On the other hand, you’re leaving as a member of a marginalized party and I think it’s fair to say that your political positions are hardly considered mainstream.

On the contrary.

Indeed. Does your legislative success mask a failure to influence the wider public?

Well, the Knesset as I said is an extremely important place and I think that being in the Knesset and being in party politics is hugely important. You are right. I was able to change many, many things but within the Knesset, I was not able to change the general direction of Israeli society. This general direction really worries me. In every field that I have dedicated my work to: peace, democracy, equality, social justice.

Without the active participation of Arabic population or the Arab minority in Israel, there is no really chance of political and social change here

This ship of Israeli society is moving in a bad and very dangerous direction. I have to face this very grim reality. I cannot only satisfy myself with the concrete important achievements had as a Knesset member. As a matter of fact, it’s the root of my decision to leave the Knesset. Not in order to leave politics, on the contrary, I am leaving in order to engage in a different kind of politics because I believe that in order to really change the general direction of Israeli society, we have to go deeper into public opinion, into the basic trends of the ocean. Otherwise, the ship will continue to move in the wrong direction.

Is that an admission that there is only a limit that legislators can do, a limit to their influence?

Yes. Of course if you are in government and you are holding the steering wheel of the ship, then your position is different. Any opposition and coalition MK can do a lot of very important and interesting things from inside the Knesset, but in order to change the general direction of the country, you have to move outside. You have to go back to the public, and you have to go deeper into the social fabric of Israeli society in order to have a real impact on the deeper trends of the sea, instead of remaining on the boat and trying to fight against the current.

Where is that for you? You are getting off the Knesset ship but where is the ocean you are jumping into?

Well, the ocean is Israeli society. I think in Israeli society, there are many more opportunities to make a change. As a Knesset member, I have been able to travel around the country and to see a lot of people who are interested in change, who would like to see real change in Israeli society. Some people are despondent. They feel everything is lost. I think they are wrong. I think that despair is the most dangerous thing.

I think that Israeli society is much more open to change, but this change cannot be made from the Knesset. It cannot come from only the political parties. It must be connected with the development of a wide movement of citizens who would like to see such change.

You said that you think Israel is on the wrong path. Where does that path lead to? What do you fear?

Well, I have a few fears. Four, actually.

First of all, without any moving forward toward a peace settlement, we will unfortunately be drawn into more wars. That is a big, big danger. War is always horrible. Even if Israel will get the upper hand, people will be killed and a lot of damage and hatred between people will only get stronger.

Would you describe yourself as a pacifist?

No. I’m not a pacifist, but I would like to fight for peace. I think the challenge to moving ahead toward a peace settlement is a hugely important one.

The next challenge is the very clear danger in the growing gap between Jews and Arabs within Israel itself. This is a very, very worrying development for me. During my tenure as a Knesset member, I was extremely proud to stand on the bridge connecting Jews and Arabs.

Dov Khenin (center) with Arab-Israeli MKs, participating in a rally in Tel Aviv against Israeli control of the West Bank, June 5, 2010 (GILI YAARI /FLASH90)

But I will admit that the state of the bridge is not good, and we are too few continuing to defend it. Whatever I will do, I will continue to defend that bridge between Jews and Arabs because I believe that if we can foster true cooperation, this bridge is a key to the future of both Israeli Jews and Israeli Arab citizens.

In this past Knesset you have been a member of the first ever united list of Arab-Israeli parties, the only Jewish member in fact. Do you think the party has attempted to build bridges?

Within the Arab population, yes. But the challenge is not only to create unity within the Arab population. This is of course important, but the real need is to create unity with the Jewish population, which is the big majority of Israeli society. Without this, we cannot really move forward.

The Joint List brought together a range of seemingly incongruent political forces — communists, socialists, Islamists, Palestinian nationalists. Did you feel comfortable sitting in the same party as some MKs potentially as far from your own political ideology as say the far-right?

There are complexities. As you said, the Joint List is a union not based really on deep political and ideological unity between parties. The truth is that the Joint List was created as a necessity because the electoral threshold was raised, and that created a situation whereby four different parties with deep ideological, political, and cultural differences between them were forced to join forces. This is not what I mean when I speak about unity. I think more about unity based on shared values formed from the bottom up. This is not how the Joint List was created.

For now, with the announcement that MK Ahmed Tibi will split from the party, it seems that the Joint (Arab) List will not even be able to retain that unity between its own factions. Is that a blow for the future of Arab-Israeli participation in Israeli politics?

The most important thing for the Arab population is to understand that they should participate. I can understand the despair felt among the Arab-Israeli population because they are knocking on the door of participating in this society and the door is closed. I can totally understand the feeling that if the doors are not opened, you might as well lock it for good and stay in your closed room.

Success for me is to create a wide public movement that will force Israeli politics and Israeli politicians to begin to change the directions on the issues of peace and relations between Jews and Arabs

But I think this is a very, very big mistake. I think that Israeli-Arab population should be part of the forces of a political and social change in Israel. Without the active participation of Arabic population or the Arab minority in Israel, there is no really chance of political and social change here. Therefore, I’m totally for full mobilization of the Arab population to participate in politics and to participate in elections.

The third danger is of course the attack on Israeli democratic space. I think we are seeing a concentrated attack on Israeli democracy including an attack on law enforcement, on the justice system, and so on.

How real is that threat? Is Israeli democracy really under threat or is Israel, as the prime minister says, “the strongest democracy in the Middle East.” Perhaps it’s somewhere in the middle?

I think that the attack on democratic space in Israel is real. It’s not only an attack on the institutions, it’s also an attack on the freedom of speech. It is the ability of a lecturer in the university to oppose right-wing opinions. This is now happening every day. Democratic space in Israel was always limited for Arabs more than for Jews, nowadays however, it is being limited for anyone who opposes the government or opposes the majority. This is very, very real and a very, very severe danger. I cannot accept the notion that Israel is such a unique phenomena whereby democracy will stay forever no matter what. We need to protect it.

You’re saying there is the possibility that we could have some form of dictatorship here or tyranny?

Yes. You should understand that danger to democracy or to democratic space does not mean that tomorrow morning we will wake up and see tanks in the streets. That is not the only form of danger to democratic space. Most of the time the attacks on democratic space come at a slow place. We are not going to wake up tomorrow with all the radio stations only broadcasting Netanyahu speeches, but in Israel it’s not so slow anymore. Things are changing and they are changing in a very worrying direction.

You are leaving the Knesset as these issues seem set to take an even more prominent role in the public discourse, with indictments against the prime minister looking likely to take place within the next year. Where do you see this ending?

Netanyahu is extremely, extremely resolute — and it needs to be understood properly deeply — on not entering prison. That is something that most people I think cannot really grasp. He will do whatever needed, whatever needed whatsoever, in order not to go to prison.

What do you mean? Could we see riots in the streets?

Riots in the street? Why only riots in the street? There are more efficient tools when you are the prime minister. He could start a war with our neighbors. People need to understand that Netanyahu is resolute about not entering prison.

What does that mean?

Whatever you can imagine, and whatever you even cannot imagine at the moment. I’m not sure that your readers really grasp the meaning of what I am saying now.

Do you think Israelis have grasped it?

No, but I know it. I do know it. I know that he’s really resolute about not entering prison. His legal situation is bad. Very bad.

Israeli protesters demonstrate against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the wake of police recommendations to indict him for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, Tel Aviv on February 16, 2018. (AFP photo / Jack Guez)

You mentioned four challenges?

Yes. The fourth that I’m deeply worried about is the social economic situation in Israel. Israel is a rich society but there are too many people left behind. I meet them every day and I see the complexities.

There are a lot of things to deal with, and in all these four dimensions of Israeli reality, unfortunately Israel is moving in the wrong direction. The challenge is to create a wide and deep movement of forces that will be able to move the ship into a different direction.

In terms of social justice, it’s now nearly eight years since the mass social protests of 2011. Do you see the possibility of a return of such a mobilization based on socio-economic issues?

I’m sure that such mobilization will occur because as you said, there was a huge social protest movement in Israel. If you see the numbers of Israelis demonstrating in relation to the general population at large, then this was the biggest social protest movement in the world even.

[The largest single demonstration of the social protests, billed as the “March of the Million,” saw an estimated 460,000 people taking to the streets throughout the country.]

But what came of it? It didn’t create a change in Israel’s political priorities.

Yes, but that is the reason it can return. The problem that sparked the social protest movement was the high prices of housing in Israel. And housing prices have gone up by almost two-fold since 2011. Therefore the reasons, the basic reasons for the social protest are still there. Of course, we should learn from the complexities and failures of the social protest movement in order to do it better the next time, but I’m sure that such a mobilization and such a process will occur again in the future.

So if you are leaving the Knesset to try and tackle these issues, who remains to fight them with legislation? Who are you handing the mantle to?

Well, that is a very, very difficult question because on the one hand, I feel that this is the right thing to do for me. On the other hand, I do have mixed feelings. The most important of those feelings is a deep worry. I think that the Knesset is an extremely important place. You have to be very, very dedicated. It’s difficult work, extremely difficult. You cannot really imagine how difficult it is. You have to spend 17 hours per day, seven days a week. You cannot really rest. You cannot really breathe sometimes. It’s all the time. It requires complete dedication. So yes, I am worried what will be the next Knesset. I cannot really give myself a satisfying answer to that question.

Beyond individual lawmakers, do you think that the left can lead Israel again?

I think that the left should lead Israel, And if it should, then it can. But it must be dedicated to the real principles of the left. The principles or the values of the left are extremely important and we should stay true to them.

Groucho Marx joked, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.” I’m not that sophisticated. I believe that without values, there is no real reason to be in politics. Values are the starting point. From basing yourself on your values, you should be able to speak with people, to take people along with you on the journey. I think that some of my friends in the left have lost this ability to speak with people, to engage people, not to be isolated. I think this is a very big challenge for the left.

Are the people on the right able to do that, to engage?

Yes. I think the people on the right, some of them do not have values, but they are more capable of speaking with people. That is extremely important, so you should have both. You should have both values and an ability to connect with people. Without both these things, you will not be able to succeed.

What is success for you now?

Well, success for me is to create a wide public movement that will force Israeli politics and Israeli politicians to begin to change the directions on the issues of peace and relations between Jews and Arabs, and regarding social justice and democracy. I think that such a movement will be able to engage the many, many people who are not satisfied with the situation, but currently stay at home and just look with horror at the developments. I think that such a movement is possible, and I will do whatever I can in order to help create this movement and help it have a real influence.

Do you think one day you might return to the Knesset as the political leader of such a movement?

The real challenge at the moment is not in the Knesset. The Knesset is always there. It’s always possible to get into the Knesset. That’s not the challenge. The challenge is to do the hard and important work that’s needed right now, and that’s what I am doing.

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