An interview with Hadash MP and communist Dov Khenin
Dov Khenin speaking at a demonstration against Israel’s war on Gaza.
Dov Khenin is a member of Israel’s parliament (the Knesset) representing Hadash, the alliance led by the Communist Party of Israel. In November 2008, Khenin stood as mayoral candidate for Israel’s biggest city Tel Aviv, where he received almost 35% of the vote. Dov Khenin talks to the editors of the British socialist journal 21st Century Socialism about the Middle East conflict and prospects for a renewal of the left in Israel. He also discusses the issues to be overcome in a negotiated Middle East settlement, international solidarity with the Palestinian people and the need for socialism in the 21st century. This interview has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission, in the interests of informing our readers of all shades of left opinion in occupied Palestine.
… the new generation of young Israelis are more open to new ideas, new thinking, more open to criticism, to social and environmental and political criticism of Israeli society and politics.
21st Century Socialism: What was the Israeli establishment aiming to achieve with the recent attack on Gaza and the continuing siege, and what have they achieved?
Dov Khenin: Their logic is that the only way to solve problems is through force, and if force cannot solve something then you should use more force. This is the inner logic of the Israeli establishment’s attitude towards the Middle East conflict and to the Palestinians especially. Of course, this cannot really achieve anything, it is just a further escalation of the vicious circle of hate and blood which is the disaster of the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Do you see aspects of the current situation, with the election of Barack Obama in the United States and in the changing forces in Israel, Palestine and the Middle East, which could lead to a breakthrough towards peace?
Well, concerning the politics of the Obama administration, it is to early to tell what they are willing to do here in the Middle East. I think it is high time for the United States to realise that the current policy as conducted by the Bush administration caused a lot of damage to American influence here in the Middle East. So I do believe that the Americans should change their attitude. Are they willing to do so? It is too early to really know.
Now, concerning Israel and Palestine, the situation is very dialectical. On the one hand, the rise of the extreme right wing in Israel, and the rise of Hamas as the administration in Gaza, are both developments in the direction of further escalation, and further deterioration of the situation in the Middle East. However, at the very same time, I do believe that most Israelis and most Palestinians are really tired of this very long conflict, and there are forces underneath in both peoples that would like a change of course, the real beginning of a political process here.
Could you comment on the recent general election in Israel, including the performance of the left?
The elections gave an electoral picture of the complete deadlock of the Labour and Kadima government, in both political and social-economic issues. So Israeli voters really punished both Kadima and Labour, and elected a right-wing government, without any real enhusiasm. The moderate Zionists including Meretz fared very badly.
We should make a very clear defining line between the old left, what we call the moderate Zionist parties, who had a crushing defeat in this election, partly because of their indecision, vis-a-vis the Gaza war for example. They supported the war at the beginning, then they hesitated for a while. Hadash really strengthened its vote both in the Jewish parts of Israel and in the Arabic population. Of course, Hadash is still a very small party. We have only four out of 120 MPs.
There is a need for a new left in Israeli politics; it is not only a need but it is also a possibility. We can see the signs of this possibility with the relative success of Hadash in both Jewish and Arab parts of Israel. But of course the challenge for the recreation of the new Israeli left is a very important one and it is still ahead of us. The way to re-establish and rebuild a powerful new Israeli left is only beginning.
In November 2008 you stood for election as mayoral candidate for Tel Aviv. Could you describe the election campaign and why you were so successful in attracting votes?
Tel Aviv is a very important place in Israel; it is not only the economic and social centre of Israeli society, it is also the cultural centre of Israel society. Tel Aviv is also the richest of all the Israeli cities.
In the recent municipal election, the incumbent mayor Ron Huldai was supported not only by his own party, which is the Labour Party, but also by the Kadima Party, which was the party of government in Israel at the time of the municipal elections; he was supported also by the right-wing Likud party, also by the religious parties, he was supported by all parties of the extreme right. And indirectly he was also supported by the Meretz Party, the Zionist moderate party, with former member of the Knesset Yaël Dayan being a member of his electoral list in the Tel Aviv municipal elections. Yaël Dayan was a very important figure in the national leadership of Meretz. So on paper, Ron Huldai, the current mayor of Tel Aviv, was a very sure candidate for the elections, and he ran a campaign with a lot of money.
The interesting phenomonon was that we succeeded with the “City for All” movement to achieve nearly 35% of the vote for the mayorship in Tel Aviv. Of course not enough to win the mayorship, but it was a very big success for a local movement that ran for the elections without money, with the support only of the enthusiasm of volunteers; we had approximately 2500 volunteers working for us all around the city, which in Israeli terms is a very very big number. And the most interesting phenomenon was we got the votes of about 75% of young people below 35.
The elections in Tel Aviv were not conducted only on municipal issues. From the very beginning of the election campaign, my opponents, including the Labour Party MPs, attacked me personally, very sharply, because of what they called my anti-Zionist positions, my support for the young people refusing to serve in the Israel army — which is a kind of very holy thing in Israeli society — my political attitude to the national anthem of Israel (you know, this anthem really does not allow Arabs to sing it, because it speaks about the Jewish spirit which we have in ourselves). So all these political, and you may say also ideological issues, were on the front pages of every Israeli newspaper all through the campaign period of the municipal elections.
And even so, I got 35% of the votes.
And City for All, the movement we established in Tel Aviv, which is a kind of red-green alliance, is the strongest movement inside the Tel Aviv municipality following the election. So this really shows the possibilities existing within Israeli society. You know, seeing Israeli society from abroad, you may see mostly problems, problems and dangers. But understanding Israeli society from within, you see not only problems, but also possibilities. You see the new generation of young Israelis are more open to new ideas, new thinking, more open to criticism, to social and environmental and political criticism of Israeli society and politics. So the experience of City for All really shows up that the building of a new left in Israeli society is not only very much needed, but is also very very possible.
It seems from here that from the increasing Israeli repression in the Occupied Territories, the war on Lebanon, the war on Gaza, that Zionism is slipping into a moral crisis, that its increasingly shrill justifications for Israel’s actions are being rejected more and more by the international community. Israel is being compared to apartheid South Africa, do you think that is a fair comparison?
Well, I think that the current situation is leading to some very bad places. You know, historical comparisons are very limited; every situation is specific. And you cannot really compare very different places and histories. But without any doubt, the current politics of the Israeli establishment is leading Israel into terrible places. It will lead to the growing isolation of Israel in the world if it continues.
There is a movement in many countries to push for a boycott of Israel, of academic institutions, of Israeli goods, trade and so on. What is the position of Hadash?
Khenin: We do support a boycott of things produced in the Israeli settlements, we are for a boycott of products from the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories. However, I do not believe that an indiscriminate boycott of Israel and Israelis will help to improve the situation in any way. You know, the right-wing establishment in Israel use these kinds of boycotts to prove once more to the Israelis that all the world is against us, that people do not make any clear marking line between moderates and extremists, that all the world is anti-Semitic and so on. So an indiscriminate boycott I don’t think is very helpful.
What is your view on the internal divisions of the Palestinians, between Fatah, Hamas and so forth?
I think the internal division inside the Palestinian people is a disaster, and another disaster is the rise of Hamas and fundamentalistic extremism inside the Palestinian people. I think the Israeli establishment has a lot to blame for this development, because the peace forces inside the Palestinian people cannot really show their people any achievements, anything being achieved by the way of negotiations and of settlement. The situation in the Occupied Territories is only deteriorating. So the right-wing Palestinians, the Palestinians who oppose the two-state solution, can say to their people that the way of negotiations does not lead anyone to any progress.
What does Israel need to do to create a just and lasting settlement?
Well, first of all Israel should open real and serious dialogue with the Palestinians, with Syria and with the Arab League, based on the Arab Peace Initiative. I think that concerning the Palestinian Occupied Territories, Israel should immediately cease building and expanding the settlements. You know, with all these recent deals, building of the settlements continued at very great speed; it was under Labour defence ministers and under Kadima administrations, that Israel continued building these settlements at record speed. So Israel should immediately cease building the settlements; Israel should re-open all the kinds of blockages in the Palestinian territories; Israel should establish a ceasefire with Gaza, including the opening of the blockade on Gaza. Israel should agree on the exhange of prisoners and detainees, including bringing back Gilad Shalit to his home and his family.
These are the first and very important steps that Israel should take right now.
The Israeli government position, which has also had support from the United States, is that because of the divisions among the Palestinians, and Hamas being in government in Gaza, that effectively they have nobody to negotiate with. What is your view on this?
I think this is very far from reality. The Palestinian sections all agreed to give Abu Mazen a mandate to conduct negotiations with Israel. This was also part of the prisoners’ document, initiated by all the leaders of the Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including the leaders who belong to Hamas. So there is a real possibility to have a political dialogue with the Palestinian leadership. The thing is that the Israeli establishment is not willing to pay the price for a peace settlement in the Middle East. That is, withdrawing from the Palestinian territories, establishing a Palestinian state, with Eastern Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine and Western Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
In terms of achieving a two-state solution, one of the stumbling blocks is the removal of the Israeli settlements, which would involve a large population transfer of Jewish settlers from the West Bank into Israel. Then there is the issue of Jerusalem, and also the right of return of the Palestinian refugees who are currently scattered across the Arab world.
Speaking about the settlements, we support the dismantlement of the settlements. This is realistic. You know, we had settlements in Gaza, and we had settlements in Sinai. Then Israel abolished the settlements that existed there. Speaking about Jerusalem, the situation there is very complicated. There should be put in place some arrangement that would leave Israeli neighbourhoods under Israeli control, and all Palestinian neighbourhoods under Palestinian control. As a a matter of fact, we understand that there is a willingness among the Palestinian leaders to have a practical solution to the concrete line of the border in Jerusalem.
Speaking about the refugee issue, we believe that Israel should recognise the rights of the refugees, and that the issue of a practical solution should be part of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. There is a basic recognition of rights on the one hand, and there is a practical political solution based on agreement between the political leaderships of the two peoples on the other hand.
What is Hadash’s attitude to the Palestinian armed struggle against Israel, and in particular to the firing of rockets into Israel? Does Hadash see a difference between the rocket attacks and other forms of armed struggle such as attacks on the Israeli military?
Our position is against any kind of attacks on civilians. We see attacking the civilian population as as a war crime and we resolutely condemn it. Generally speaking, the Palestinians have the right to oppose the occupation, but the the thing that should have a lot of weight here is the practical result of every form of opposition to occupation. There are some forms of opposition to occupation which may only strengthen the occupation; and therefore they are not helpful, they do not lead the freedom struggle into any kind of achievement.
How can international supporters of the Palestinians best express their solidarity?
Well, there are a lot of ways to express solidarity nowadays: demonstrations, public pressure on governments; because the Israeli establishment relies very heavily on the total support it gets from both the US administration and from European governments. So it is very important for people in Europe and in the United States to put pressure on their own government to support different policies, which will really help an Israeli and Palestinian just peace here in the Middle East.
Hadash, which significantly increased its vote among both Arab and Jewish communities in the recent Israeli general election, has a social program, which includes for instance the rights of women and sexual minorities. Was that an important element in the election campaign of Hadash?
All the issues of a socal nature — you mention women, sexual minorities and so on — were a part of our program. Some people could argue that we should stress them more broadly in our campaign, but they were a part of our program, and a part of the issues that we dealt with in our campaign.
A final question. You are also a member of the leadership of the Communist Party of Israel which is the main component of Hadash. We are in the 21st century, 18 years after the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union. Does the Communist Party of Israel have a future, and what do you see as its ideological and philosphical message?
Well, for me communism is the idea that we live in a very, very unjust world and that we should very radically change it. Of course, there was a very big attempt to change the world in the 20th century, an attempt that really failed very miserably. And a lot of people learned from this failure that changing the world is not possible. I do not agree with that idea. I do believe that changing the world is very needed, today no less than yesterday, even more than yesterday. We live in a world with a very big crisis — social, economic and environmental. And therefore this world needs very radical, revolutionary change.
However, we should learn from the history of the 20th century; we should not repeat the mistakes, both the political mistakes and the theoretical mistakes of 20th century socialism. We should realise that socialism is not possible without democracy. Democracy is part and parcel of what is socialism about. Actually, socialism is about more democracy — it is about more democracy in the economy and in social issues, and also it is about more democracy in politics, with the aim of taking politics from the hold of big capital.
There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the failure of 20th century socialism, but the lesson is not that change is impossible.