Voting for Equality?


Interview with Ghaida Rinawie-Zoabi on her candidacy for Meretz and the prospects for Jewish-Arab equality

Ghaida Rinawie-Zoabi photo
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Ghaida Rinawie-Zoabi

On March 23rd, 2021 the Israeli public will vote again for the fourth time in just over two years. As Israel is going in and out of lockdowns, with high vaccination rates alongside major internal criticism on the way in which the coronavirus crisis is being managed, resulting in almost 6000 victims and an unprecedented increase in unemployment and poverty, the public is called once again to determine its political leadership.

The Heinrich-Böll-Foundation (HBF) Tel Aviv spoke with Ms. Ghaida Rinawie-Zoabi, who is running for the first time as a candidate for Meretz, Israel's leftwing party. Rinawie-Zoabi was the founding Executive Director of Injaz Center for Professional Arab Local Governance, a long-time partner of the Tel Aviv HBF office.

Rinawie-Zoabi is coming from a rich background of work in strategic consulting, organizational development and community activism, with special attention to women’s rights. She has an MBA in Impact investment, is an alumnus of the OXFORD Said Business School Impact Measurement Program, and was the director of ACTO - the Academic Centre for Impact Investing and Entrepreneurship at the College of Management in Rishon L`Tzion Israel. Rinawie-Zoabi was included in 2018 on the Forbes-Israel list of the 50 most influential women in Israel, and today is the Head of the Friends Association for the Baruch Padeh Poriya Medical Center.

HBF : After the current government failed to pass a budget at the end of 2019, the Knesset was automatically dissolved, setting the stage for new elections. This will be the 4th round of elections in Israel in merely 2 years. How did we get to this point and what will be different this time?

GRZ: This chaotic political situation is a direct result of the Prime Minister’s legal situation. He is accused of corruption and tries everything to prevent the trial and his conviction. He uses the political system as a hostage for his personal interest. But I want to talk about 3 dimensions that are linked to this – first, the cost of the election process. It is an expensive process and is not part of the budget. Second, despite the fact that the government budget was extended to 2021, it is election time, and thus government budgets cannot be transferred to local municipalities, schools, and civil society organizations. There are many funds that are stuck in the ministries while people are not getting the services they need. I personally volunteer as a member of the board at Beit Izzy Shapira, a large NGO working with children with disabilities, an organization that depends on government support to provide its services. The organization did not even receive their government funding for 2020, which causes real damage.

A third dimension is a growing sense of despair – when we had the previous election rounds, one could have had hope. People took politics more seriously and there was a feeling that they are able to influence the results. Now the Prime Minister talks about the possibility for a 5th round. Those who feel their vote is useless might stay home and not go out to vote.

HBF : It seems that the party that will be best able to mobilize voters, will determine elections’ results, with many parties currently close to the electoral threshold. What is the strategy of Meretz? How are you going to mobilize voters, especially among the Arab-Palestinian public?

GRZ: Until this current election round in March, we had the Arab Joint List – a partnership of four very different Arab political parties. They wanted to fight together against racism and government policies. Within recent rounds of election, two taboos were broken in regards to the political stance and participation of the Arab community – first the recommendation of Benny Gantz as Prime Minister in the nomination process. Gantz is not only a Jewish candidate, but he was the former IDF Commander in Chief. Having the Joint List, including the Balad party, recommending a military general is breaking a taboo. Another taboo that was broken was that for the first time ever, many Jewish Israelis could see Arabs as their political partners. Now not only Netanyahu is seeking the Arab vote, but also others who for the last ten years said they we will sit in a coalition with all Jews, but not with Arabs. Lapid (Yesh Atid) or Sa’ar (New Hope) are good examples.

Now, the situation is that the Arab Joint List has disintegrated and parts of it left. Instead of dealing with the grave problems the Arab community is facing, the parties are blaming each other. So people are in despair, asking themselves why should they even go vote. We in Meretz believe in Arab Jewish partnership on the level of citizenship. We believe in equal civil activism. I am happy that in the last year the leadership of Meretz has understood that if the party wants to sustain itself, it has to include Arab partners at the top of its representation. And the result was that two of the first five spots on Meretz's list are occupied by two Arabs – me and Esawie Frej. I am happy to say that Meretz saw the potential of including an Arab woman, an activist, coming from the field, with my resume of 15 years working with local municipalities on issues of housing, budget allocations, welfare, etc.

What we are trying to do in Meretz, is to say to young voters – yes we agree with you, there is a lot of despair. Sometimes the Joint List has disappointed us, but the answer is not to stay home and avoid voting. This will result in the rise and strengthening of Netanyahu and his racist dangerous allies such as Ben Gvir (Otzma Yehudit), and will damage our daily life and our civil rights. If you are disappointed, you have a real alternative in Meretz, the leader of the Israeli left, adhering to social justice, promoting equality in Israel and citizenship that is not passive, but proactive.

HBF : In your debut speech you talked about the way you want the Arab-Palestinian youth to engage in the creation of the Israeli society. What is your vision and what are ways to achieve it?

GRZ: I believe that there is a new generation within our Arab society. A new generation that starts to realize that if we want to change our realities, we should be proactive and not wait for any solution to come from the outside.

What happens is that we have two components of our identity. We have the national Palestinian component of our identity – for example when we go to eat in a restaurant in Ramallah, it is our culture and it feels natural for us. But there is another component, which is the citizenship component. As a society, we still don’t know what this citizenship component is about. What does it mean to be an Israeli citizen beyond the national component? We do not really know what it means, what content it might have, and how to fill this citizenship component with substance. For Jewish Israelis – I feel that the same question is relevant as well. I think that many of them too do not have a good answer beyond one’s Jewish identity. I think that Meretz now has an opportunity, in the longer run, to build a second layer or second floor – above existing identity politics. I do not think the politics of identity is wrong, because this is natural, this is who I am and I want to be part of my people. Nevertheless, we need to build an additional floor and give ideas, ideology and meaning to the term Israeli identity that goes beyond the national component. This will be the role of the young generation. Today Arab demonstrators are coming to Tel Aviv to demonstrate against the occupation because of their commitment to the Palestinian people, but I want them to demonstrate also in the name of their civil component and ask in what kind of state they want to live in. We want a state based on social justice, equality and values. This is the vision of Meretz.

HBF : You are coming from the civil society, how do you see the role of civil society and why did you decide to engage in politics?

GRZ: For 15 years l was working on important daily issues of civil equality. Now I am in a point where I can expand my service to my community, I do believe that this is a service, and I can translate my knowledge that I gained from working within an NGO vis-à-vis the Knesset, as I move into parliament. I believe that civil society organizations in Israel are one of the major important vehicles for social, economic, and political change. When you look at Members of Knesset that worked closely with NGOs, they are more successful. They have backup, by having a closer ear to what is happening in the field, through their contact with civil society organizations.

HBF : Women are still underrepresented in Israeli politics. In this election cycle we can see an increase in the number of women on the list of various parties (with exceptions such as in the ultraorthodox parties). Is there a positive development towards greater gender equality?

GRZ: The Arab society is much more traditional regarding women. In the last 15 years, women in the Arab society are pushing through, in education and media, and now in politics. Civil society organizations are open for women to advance and achieve seniority, but are not only important for women. There are male politicians who evolved there professionally as well.  

Five years ago, there were good numbers of women participating. I hoped that this trend will continue and numbers will increase, but in the last two years, we experienced a deterioration in representation. In my opinion, it is mainly because in the beginning male political leaders supported women in their parties, but as soon as they realized that they are really challenging them, they pushed back.

HBF: Thank you Ghaida for the interview and for sharing your perspectives with us. We look forward to see you in the next Knesset. Good luck!

GRZ: Thank you.