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Israel: An interview with Hadash MP and communist Dov Khenin

Dov Khenin speaking at a demonstration against Israel's war on Gaza.

March 8, 2009 -- 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.


Reply to Interview with Dov Khenin

I am an Israeli Marxist and a member of the Internationalist Socialist League, a Trotskyist, anti-Zionist group in Israel. We have read your interview with Dov Khenin, and it has not taught us many new things regarding the opportunism of the Israeli CP.
However, since it is easy for Khenin to fool readers from outside Israel, we considered replying to some of his distortions to be imperative. If we had the space, we would discuss all the issues raised in the interview, including his lies about both the Knesset elections and the Tel-Aviv mayoral elections.
For now, though, we shall confine ourselves to a few central subjects, and show that Khenin and his party are following a policy that in no way aids the liberation of the Palestinian people -- it is in fact contrary to the principles that genuine communists have always stood for.
Readers interested in learning more about us are welcome to contact us at

Pacifist Attitude to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Marxists always support oppressed nations struggling against imperialism: that is ABC. However, even to non-Marxists on the left, the recent Israeli assault on Gaza proved once more that the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” is not one in which both sides are equally to blame, but one in which an imperialist state seeks to enforce its will on an entire people, which it has expropriated and which it continues to oppress to this day.
At least, that should have been its effect. But pseudo-Marxists of Khenin’s type never fail to offer a twisted interpretation of reality in favor of their ruling class, and this time is no exception:
“…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… 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."
Reality is turned on its head: are the “right-wing Palestinians” those that oppose a two-state solution, or is it reactionary Palestinian leaders -– a category which includes both Hamas and the CP’s and western imperialism’s sweethearts, Fatah – use radical rhetoric to disguise their willingness to compromise with Israel? As Khenin himself points out in the interview, “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.”
In fact, opposition to the two-state solution is becoming more and more widespread among the radicalizing Palestinian masses and pro-Palestinian groups worldwide. But the ICP’s reaction is exactly opposite -– it is that of frightened liberals, not of revolutionaries. Not only does Khenin admit to supporting the Zionist state when he expresses fear of its isolation, but his ``solution'' of creating a Bantustan on a fraction of Palestine also denies the right of self-determination for the Palestinians, who are both an oppressed people and a majority in the territory Israel rules.
Blaming more radical opponents of “aiding the right wing” is a common CP slander. The truth is that those who really assist the right-wing are the CP politicians, who offer themselves up as the left flank of the Zionist state. After all, the ICP considers itself a patriotic Israeli party, and it has already shown its true allegiances in the past – for example, when it voted for the evacuation-compensation law to save Sharon’s government during the disengagement.
The Peace the CP envisages
If Khenin’s version of the past has little to do with reality, then his vision of the future is no less ambitious. To have utopian dreams is admirable; to have liberal-imperialist ones is deplorable for anyone masquerading as a communist:
"[The Israeli establishment’s] logic is that the only way to solve problems is through force … Of course, this cannot really achieve anything…
"Concerning the politics of the Obama administration… 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. "
In fact, Israel has always used repression to force its interests on the peoples of the Middle East. The ICP, however, cannot be blamed for wanting to forget such historical lessons: its help in acquiring weapons for the Zionist army’s ethnic cleansing campaign in 1948 was instrumental in allowing the establishment of the Zionist state.
As for the generous proposal on how to repair damage to “American influence” in the Middle East –- we must say that even we are somewhat struck by this. Is Khenin seriously suggesting that, now that Obama is America’s President and not Bush, that its intervention in the region is somewhat legitimate? We regret to say that that is simply not a “change we can believe in.”
On the question of refugees, Khenin’s position is even fouler. For a long time, the ICP had at least the merit of being one of the only parties to advocate in words the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Recently, it has been rather silent on the subject. Now Khenin reveals that this has indeed been so much rhetoric:
"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."
This sneaky passage, truly befitting for a cynical reformist politician, really says a lot about Khenin and his party. What he is basically telling the Israeli ruling class is “Don’t be too stubborn about words. If you agree to recognize to right of the Palestinian refugees to return, that alone will give you a lot of credit. If you do so, we promise that we –- along with our collaborators in the West Bank and Gaza – make sure that this recognition isn’t mistaken by anyone as a signal that refugees can really return to their land. We will help you make sure that this recognition remains yet another smokescreen for your real policies and for creating a separate Palestinian state, wholly dependent on Israel.”
Khenin and his party currently have no buyers among the Zionist bourgeoisie. When the time comes, though, they will be instrumental in sowing such illusions among not only Palestinian but also radicalizing Jewish workers. Those who support this party today, enthusiastically or as a lesser evil, are in fact aiding this party in its work. We advise all of its honest militants and supporters to enter into a dialogue with us.
Yehuda Stern for the Internationalist Socialist League

Dov Khenin opposed the war on Gaza from the outset

Dov Khenin was possibly the only Jewish member of the Knesset to have opposed the war on Gaza from the outset, leading public demonstrations on December 26th before the war started.

One does not have to agree with all of Hadash's programme (and I don't) to realise that a non-Zionist anti-war Jewish candidate receiving over one third of the vote in Tel Aviv is an interesting development worthy of serious study. How was it done? What does it represent? What are the lessons for the left?

And yet instead the International Socialist League inflicts upon us an object lesson in ultraleftist sloganeery, outdone only by the self-righteous tone in which it was delivered. The effect, if there is any at all, is to demoralise people under the guise of revolutionary purity.

Presumably the ISG prefer the ultra-othodox right wing to Hadash? "Oh no", they will cry, we want you support the true revolutionaries, i.e. themselves. And that is best achieved, they imagine in their idealism, by attacking people on the left with real roots in the working class and explaining that their micro-sect is the real vanguard.

In the unlikely event that this sect ever addresses the invertly proportionate relationship between their revolutionary rhetoric and their revolutionary achievements, they might have something worthwhile to say.

Right now, they don't.

More meaningless rhetoric

Calvin wants us to believe that because Dov Khenin opposed the war on Gaza - using pacifist and chauvinist arguments, mostly - makes him a saint that we should worship. It does not. Politics is not a popularity contest. For Marxists, it is activity whose goal is to create a revolutionary party, representing the vanguard of the working class. That Khenin did something right - partially - does not change anything about his politics. It just makes it that much easier for him to sow illusions in bourgeois democracy, easier than for the "ultra-orthodox right" that Calvin and his Israeli ilk attack to hide their de-facto support for the Zionist centre-left.

Calvin claims that we are "demoralizing" people. That is nothing but nonsense. Demoralization comes from realizing that the leaders of a party you believed in were lying to you and cynically using your trust to support the capitalist state. That is exactly what the CP has been doing for decades now, and hundreds of demoralized ex-CP militants can testify to that.

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