While Deputy Knesset Speaker Ahmad Tibi was protesting a controversial Knesset bill recently in Beer Sheva, a Jewish man in his 40’s approached the well-known Tibi. No, he did not come to Tibi to debate the merits of the law, but rather poured hot tea on Tibi causing a burning sensation in Tibi’s eyes. This was a typical moment for Tibi, arguably the most influential Arab politician in Israel, who has consistently been targeted by right wing Israeli Jews for his controversial stances.
"I don't fear death threats, spit, or hot tea, and I will continue to raise my voice in protest. It is severe that a public figure is physically attacked because of their position,” Tibi exclaimed. When he sees an Israeli government policy that he views as racist, he is quick to protest, often through dramatic and provocative measures to defend the rights of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs – even at risk of hot tea.
"Tibi also has a conciliatory side"
Tibi was born in 1958 to a family of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war in the Arab town of Tayibe in central Israel. Tibi’s father was a manager of Bank Hapoalim, which had strong ties with early Zionists. Studying medicine at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Ahmad Tibi became a doctor specializing in gynecology. He graduated his medical studies in 1983 finishing with honors and ranked first in his class. He is married to his wife, May, who is a dentist and they have two daughters. As a student, he became involved with politics and in 1984, met with Yasser Arafat in Tunis, despite this being a crime at the time. The same year he began his internship in genecology at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital.
In 1993, he changed careers and served as a political advisor to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, a point of mistrust for many Israeli Jews who depict Arafat as a terrorist. As Tibi says, “I found it important to serve my people in politics and be elected. There are both viruses in medicine and politics that should be treated.” Describing himself as part of the Palestinian nation, Tibi speaks a polished Hebrew interweaving literary idioms with a heavy Arabic accent, and he even corrects Jewish Knesset Members Hebrew from the Knesset floor. Tibi never forgot his medical training even when working as a lawmaker. While vacationing in Spain, Tibi saved the life of a fellow Israeli who dove headfirst into a shallow area of the beach, jumping to the injured man’s assistance.
Tibi is a fierce critic of Netanyahu. When I asked him if there was anything positive he could say about the previous four years of Netanyahu’s reign, he answered “it is an impossible mission to find something good about Netanyahu.” Refuting another of Israel’s sacred canons, Tibi rejects defining Israel as a Jewish state because he believes that this policy promotes discrimination against the country’s Arab citizens.
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No fear of controversy, Tibi enjoys making dramatic gestures. In July, from the Knesset podium, Tibi poured water over the Bedouin bill to voice his disgust, instantly making headlines. The Knesset’s ethics committee censured Tibi and prevented him from running Knesset forums for the remainder of the year’s sessions. Shocking even many Israelis used to Tibi’s controversies, he visited Libya in 2010 to meet with the dictator Col. Muammar Galdhafi. A prominent Palestinian-Israeli poet, Salaman Masalha, criticized Tibi for his Libya trip writing in Haaretz “Not only are such trips by Arab representatives to kowtow before Arab despots an insult to the intelligence, they also harm the just struggle of this country’s Arab population.”
For all his antics and the right wing attempts to disqualify him from running for Knesset, Tibi continues to be elected by his Arab constituency as the chairman of the Raam-Taal Party.
Yet, Tibi also has a conciliatory side. He recognizes Israel and condemns terrorism against innocent civilians, both Jews and Arabs, he emphasizes. In a powerful speech at the Knesset on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Tibi surprised the Israeli populous again with his compassion for the Jewish majority. Challenging a popular theory on the Arab street, Tibi declared, “There is nothing more foolish or amoral than Holocaust denial. For what purpose? We are here in the era of realizing rights for self-determination and freedom, not dismantling states or people.” Then Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin of the right wing Likud party called it “One of the best speeches he has ever heard in the plenum.” In explaining the message of this famous speech Tibi exclaimed, “I am a human being. I feel empathy to those who were victims of this horrible crime and this ideology of racism. I am living in Israel side by side with Jewish citizens.” However, in typical Tibi fashion he continued, “I am saying this as part of the Palestinian people as victims of the Israeli policy. I am the victim of the victim.”
Tibi asked, “Why not have a Geneva Convention for the Palestinian cause?”
“Like all Arab MKs, Tibi is not popular, but he is the most popular unpopular politician,” explained Amit Segal, Israeli Channel 2 Political Correspondent. “He is a very savvy user of the media. When they (other Arab MKs) speak solely about P.A.-Israel issues, he will speak about food and football too. He speaks ‘Israeli,’ whereas they speak Hebrew.” Yet, Segal admits that many Israelis view Tibi’s stunts like travelling with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on his plane to the United Nations as a dual loyalty issue. Segal notes that some Israelis question whether he was even loyal to Israel at all.
Yet others take a different view on Tibi. Bernard Avishai, Professor of Politics at the Hebrew University explains that the perception of Tibi is based on context. “The progressive wing of the Labor party in the 1950’s would regard Tibi, a doctor, a person committed to democracy, recognize Israel and work within the system as just great.” In Avishai’s mind, the reason Tibi is so controversial today is that the Israeli political echelon has veered so much to the right.
After discussing the successes of postponing the Prawer Bill, Tibi called for similar action of international pressure and domestic protests to influence the government’s policy on the Palestinian issue. Examining the recent Western diplomatic achievements with Iran and Syria Tibi asked, “Why not have a Geneva Convention for the Palestinian cause?” With his tireless energy and provocative nature, if anyone could try to pressure leaders within Israel and abroad for this issue, Tibi would be the man.