The Most Hated Woman in Israel

Haneen Zoabi has made her career speaking up for Israel's Arab minority. In Benjamin Netanyahu's Israel, that's becoming harder each day.

JEDEIDA-MAKKER, Israel — Sitting in a barren, slightly mildewy campaign office in this Arab village, I asked Haneen Zoabi, an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset, what it was like being the country's most hated politician. "It doesn't bother me at all," she said.

It's easy to believe. Zoabi's style is to head for the eye of the Arab-Jewish political storm -- the result being that while she is the Jewish majority's most hated politician, she may well be the Arab minority's most beloved.

Zoabi is running for reelection in Israel's Jan. 22 parliamentary election, but it was a struggle to even reach this point. Right-wing Knesset members moved to have her disqualified, saying she had "undermined the state of Israel" and "openly incited" against the government. Only a decision by the Israeli Supreme Court in late December overturned the ban. A poll published in Haaretz indicated that her legal victory stood to gain her small, virtually all-Arab party an additional Knesset seat.

Zoabi, 43, petite and pretty in black jacket, slacks, and pointed heels -- a modern, single woman in a conservative, patriarchal Arab subculture -- had just exhorted some 50 local residents to "use all the democratic tools at our disposal to carry on the struggle." She urged them not to be what she derided as "good Arabs," those who "thank Israel every day for not expelling them in 1948, who think they are not equal to Jewish citizens."

She had held the audience's attention for nearly two hours. In the front row sat middle-aged Arab women in Islamic headscarves next to high school girls in jeans. Afterward, amid the stream of well-wishers, the girls came up and exchanged phone numbers with her. "She's the only Arab woman who speaks for us, who gives us the courage to stand up to the racism," said one.

Zoabi, who hails from one of the most prominent families in Israeli Arab society, has not pulled her punches against the Israeli government. Israel has visited systematic injustice on its Arab minority -- not to mention the Palestinians -- but her views still seem excessively one-sided. Asked once by an Israeli TV interviewer whether she could say anything good about Israel, she laughed lightly and replied, "No, I can't."

But she is also far from the sinister threat to Israel's existence that her enemies make her out to be. She is not an advocate of terrorism or of throwing the Jews out of the country. Zoabi represents a minority of second-class citizens who, with very rare exceptions, are politically nonviolent. She rejects Israel as a country founded on the "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians, advocates the right of return to Israel for the millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, and wants to transform the country from an explicitly "Jewish state," with all its official and unofficial discrimination against non-Jews, into a fully egalitarian "state of all its citizens." It sounds appealing -- until you try to imagine Arabs being drafted alongside Jews to fight for this country, if called upon, against Arab enemies.

It's not just Zoabi who has come under fire. Israeli Arabs, who make up 21 percent of Israel's 8 million people, have become increasingly feared, distrusted, and shunned by mainstream Jewish society. The rightward drift of the Israeli public since the watershed 2000 Palestinian Intifada and, especially during the four years of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, has taken its toll on coexistence within Israel. Fully 67 percent of Israeli Jews won't even drive into an Israeli Arab town or village, Haifa University Prof. Sammy Smooha, the country's leading pollster of Jewish-Arab attitudes, found last year.

It's a foregone conclusion that voters this month will give Netanyahu an even more nationalistic government than he's got now. The Likud Party -- in whose ranks Netanyahu is now a relative liberal -- is running on a joint ticket with Yisrael Beiteinu, the party of ex-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a one-time member of the racist Kach movement who has said he hoped his Arab colleagues would one day be executed. Meanwhile, the rising star of the campaign is Naftali Bennett, who advocates annexing most of the West Bank to Israel and weakening the Supreme Court's ability to rein in the government and army.

Zoabi is a lightning rod for this antagonistic spirit in the country, and a barometer of it. She became Israel's Public Enemy No. 1 on May 31, 2010, as an Israel Arab activist aboard the Mavi Marmara, a ship chartered by a Turkish Muslim aid organization to lead the flotilla challenging Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. After unarmed Israeli naval commandos rappelled onto the ship and were attacked with wooden clubs and metal rods, armed Israeli soldiers stormed the ship and shot nine Turkish activists to death. A U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) panel interviewed more than 100 activists from the ship and concluded, "a number of passengers were injured or killed whilst trying to take refuge ... or assisting others to do so," and that the commandos "continued shooting at passengers who had already been wounded."

Israel brushed the report off as typical UNHRC bias, and by that time the nation had been convinced that the commandos acted in self-defense against a murderous mob of jihadists. The Israeli army, which confiscated hours of footage of the incident, released a single, brief segment showing the crowd attacking the first unarmed commandos and throwing one over a railing to the deck below. This is the one image Israelis have of the Mavi Marmara incident -- and it shaped the political climate to which Zoabi, who says she stayed below decks during the confrontation, returned home.

"For about a year and a half I was getting letters, e-mails, and telephone calls from people saying, ‘You are a terrorist, a traitor, a piece of shit, we will get you, you and all the traitors,'" she said.

The blowback reached her in the Knesset, where her privileges as an elected representative of the Israeli people were taken away from her. She was stripped of her diplomatic passport, her right to participate in Knesset discussions, and her right to vote in committee debates. Once, while Zoabi was speaking from the Knesset podium amidst catcalls, Anastassia Michaeli of Lieberman's extreme right-wing party advanced on her, screaming, and had to be restrained by guards, who then hustled Zoabi out of the chamber.

The assaults continued. When she went to the Supreme Court with supporters Dec. 26 to file her appeal against being disqualified from the campaign, she again had to be protected by police as right-wing radicals shouted "terrorist" as she passed. "Sometimes, not always, when I go to [a mixed Jewish-Arab suburb of Nazareth], or to the airport, or Jerusalem, people say these sorts of things to me. In the supermarket I've heard people tell the cashier not to serve me," she said.

On Dec. 30, the day Zoabi won her Supreme Court appeal, another Israeli Arab Knesset member, Ahmed Tibi, was leaving a university lecture hall after an angry debate with a far-right Knesset member when a teenage girl came up and spat on him, calling him a "child-murderer." Tibi blamed it on anti-Arab "incitement" emanating from the political arena.

He had a point: The Israeli political arena is becoming more inhospitable to the country's Arab minority. In the last couple of years, Israel has witnessed arson attacks by Jewish settlers on mosques and churches; a law barring Arab municipalities and other state-funded institutions from memorializing the 1948 "Nakba" -- Arabs' term for the "catastrophe" of their exile and destruction during Israel's War of Independence -- and a raft of other anti-Arab legislation, including a bill that would have barred mosques from using loudspeakers in their calls to prayer. Netanyahu initially supported the bill, saying, "We don't need to be more liberal than Europe," but his more temperate colleagues eventually convinced him to change his mind, dooming the legislation.

As Israel gears up for the Jan. 22 vote, Zoabi says she sees a rise in "Arab national pride" in this campaign. But as for the campaign going on among the country's Jewish majority, she sees the situation going from bad to worse. "This has been a more racist campaign than others," she said. "And politically, none of the strong [Zionist parties] are presenting a real alternative to Netanyahu."

Smooha said fewer and fewer Israeli Arabs are voting in national elections because they're growing increasingly alienated from the state. No surprise there: It's not just Haneen Zoabi -- the Arab minority in general gets a cold reception in this country. And with the right-wing parties growing more extreme and more popular, it's likely to get even colder.

Fora do Eixo/Flickr


Life After Chávez

With Venezuela's president-for-life looking pretty close to death, the country's politicians are jostling to fill his shoes.

CARACAS, VenezuelaRamon Pacheco likes to boast that he is a Chávista to his bones.

President of his rural consejo communal, or commune, outside the northern city of El Consejo, Pacheco has voted for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in each of his four presidential runs. A member of Chávez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the 37 year-old farmer has been willing to overlook growing crime in his village, constant power outages, as well as shortages of fertilizer, seeds, and basic foodstuffs such as corn meal and sugar.

"I believe in Chávez," says Pacheco. "Sure, we have problems -- but they're not el comandante's fault. He's surrounded by incompetents, opportunists, and thieves."

He's still not sure which of the three Vice President Nicolás Maduro is. Chávez anointed Maduro as his heir apparent last month before leaving to undergo his fourth cancer surgery in Cuba. Since his departure, Chávez hasn't been seen or heard from -- leading to rumors about his demise or permanent incapacitation. The president is said to be battling a respiratory infection that has made it difficult for him to breathe.

But we now know for certain what has been suspected for weeks -- that the president will be unable to attend Thursday's scheduled swearing-in ceremony. The National Assembly voted on Jan. 8 to allow Chávez to be sworn in before the Supreme Court at a later date. (Under the Venezuelan Constitution, however, all presidents must be sworn in for a new term on Jan. 10 before the National Assembly, or before the Supreme Court at another location.) The country's supreme court ruled on Jan. 9 that the postponement is constitutional. What will happen, though, if Chávez doesn't recover is a more problematic question.

"Maduro's no Chávez," Pacheco says. "He doesn't connect with the people like Chávez does. He doesn't understand us. He doesn't think like one of us. I may think differently if he starts to do something like take a strong stance against corruption, which is running wild here. I just don't see him doing that."

Whether Chávismo will be able to survive in the event Chávez dies, or is unable to continue governing, will depend on Maduro's abilities to convince people like Pacheco that he can carry on the country's socialist revolution. The challenge is that the revolution, up until now, has been a populist movement rooted in the president's visceral charisma and force of personality, rather than any concrete principles or policy platform.

"I have my doubts about Chávismo without Chávez," Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost to Chávez in the October presidential race by 10 percentage points, told El Universal newspaper in a widely quoted interview. "Any leadership without Chávez appears to be to be profoundly vulnerable."

The tall, mustachioed Maduro -- the new face of Chávismo -- has had a rocky start since taking center stage last month. Unlike the glad-handing Chávez, who was constantly kissing, embracing, and hugging his countrymen, the former bus driver appears aloof and disconnected.

Maduro's speaking style is stolid, especially when compared to his mentor's jocular verbosity. Chávez often spoke for hours in televised monologues, working in slanders against his opponents, discussions of his love life, and even jokes about his diarrhea.

Maduro, who has increasingly opted to wear shirts of any hue save red, the color of Chávez and the revolution, has adopted an antagonistic stance vis-à-vis the opposition, and especially their insistence that the government release a full medical report on the ailing president.

In doing so, Maduro has seemingly hurt himself by giving overly optimistic reports on Chávez, which were subsequently contradicted by others.

"So far, Maduro has proven to be a much less articulate and charismatic speaker than Chávez," says Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with Eurasia Group. "The opposition would probably like him to continue talking."

Maduro also has another disadvantage. Since 1999, Chávez has been able to blame the country's problems on the country's old political elite and the moneyed class. Fourteen years into the revolution, that's a tougher sell.

"Maduro has to take some responsibility for the problems facing the country," says a member of the opposition's MUD umbrella group, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He just can't blame everything on Acción Democrática or Copei [formerly Venezuela's two largest political parties]. He has to take some ownership and say that Chávismo has had its share of mistakes as well."

Still, it's too early to count Chávismo or Maduro out. Since being named foreign minister in 2006, Maduro has been able to steer clear of domestic controversies, and has avoided accusations of taking advantage of his position for personal gain.

"No scandals or corruption cases have been linked to him, unlike other Chávistas," said Tarek Yorde, a Caracas-based political consultant. Maduro is also fortunate in that he is facing a demoralized, weakened, and divided opposition, especially in the wake of losing the presidential race in October and a poor showing in the December gubernatorial races. Nonetheless, he estimated that Maduro would lose up to half of the votes Chávez won in the October election.

"Maduro may go to the center to seek support," said Yorde. "He's definitely not like [Finance and Planning Minister Jorge] Giordani or [former Vice President Elias] Jaua, who would go further to the left."

Close to the president and the Castro brothers in Cuba, Maduro has political room to tweak some of Chávez's more radical economic policies. Expropriations of private companies and lands have proven to be controversial, resulting in lower investments by private companies. Foreign exchange controls have also been a disaster, distorting the economy and making Venezuela one of the most expensive countries in Latin America.

Chávismo's future, however, likely depends on what happens to Chávez. Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said on Jan. 7 that the president, who remains in a hospital in Havana, continues to fight a respiratory infection that has made breathing difficult. He gave no other details, and the government has never said whether the president is on ventilator.

So, for now, the politicians are jostling to fill the temporary vacuum. Opposition leaders have suggested that, in Chavez's absence, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello should be named interim president until new elections can be held, as the constitution mandates when the president is unable to serve. Maduro and Cabello have both disagreed, saying that the inauguration date isn't mandatory and that Chávez should be given more time to recover before being declared unfit for the presidency. That doesn't mean they're entirely on the same page, however.

Both men, who represent different factions of Chávismo, have also repeatedly denied rumors of a split between them. Cabello is backed by the party's military wing, and favors less Cuban influence in the country. Maduro is head of the civilian wing, and would continue close ties with Havana. "The stakes are sufficiently high so the PSUV will stay together at least until things become clearer," says Grais-Targow.

But if Chávez can't serve and Cabello becomes interim president, all bets are off, analysts said. The absence of Chávez might encourage Cabello, a former vice president himself, to make a power grab. "Cabello taking over as interim president wouldn't be good for Maduro at all," said Yorde. (While he publicly supports Maduro, he's an ambitious politician and it certainly seems plausible that he might have his own designs on the presidency.)

While Chávez's health concerns play out, Maduro is unlikely to take any major decisions. Chávez had been expected to devalue the currency this month to help the government close a yawning fiscal deficit, made worse by a boost in government spending before the October presidential vote. The government presently pegs the bolívar at 4.3 to the dollar. Analysts have suggested that a devaluation could take it to 8, which is still a far cry from the 18 today's rate is 185 it is trading on the black market.

The spending spree on social programs and voter handouts that the government went on before the last election also depleted international reserves. The country's liquid currency reserves have fallen to about $7 billion, good for about three months of imports. Chronic shortages of spare parts and foodstuffs have grown worse as the government has been forced to cut imports. Venezuela imports about 70 percent of the goods it consumes.

But any devaluation would hurt Maduro politically, especially as it would spur inflation -- already the highest in the region -- and lead to price increases on most foods. Maduro also is unlikely to attack the country's crime problem. Last year, nearly 22,000 Venezuelans were murdered, this in a country of 29 million. By contrast, the United States with its population of 330 million, had 12,000 murders. Faced with these challenges, Maduro or anyone would have a difficult time trying to fill Chavez's place.

In the days when he was a loyal footsoldier in the revolution, Maduro was known for saying, "with Chávez, all things are possible, and without him, nothing is."

This week, he's likely hoping he was wrong.