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Ahmed Tibi Switches Sides

The onetime adviser to Yasser Arafat is now a Knesset member

by Larry Derfner

June 17, 1999 | 8:00 pm

This week, when freshman Member of Knesset Dr. Ahmed Tibi declared his first preference for committee assignments -- Defense and Foreign Affairs, which is briefed regularly by the Shin Bet and Mossad -- right-wing MKs laughed it off. This would be like inviting Saddam Hussein into the Israeli Security Cabinet, they said. No Israeli Arab has ever sat on this Knesset committee -- certainly no Arab with a resume such as Tibi's.

Until a few months ago, when he declared his candidacy for Knesset, Tibi, 40, was an official adviser to Yasser Arafat. Now he is switching sides.

In the lobby of Tibi's office on Salah a-Din Street in East Jerusalem, a little Palestinian flag sits on top of the bookcase. Taped to the wall is a 1999 Knesset campaign bumper sticker that reads (in Palestinian national colors), "Say yes to Tibi, no to Bibi" -- a prophetic turnaround of the 1996 pro-Netanyahu campaign slogan, "Bibi or Tibi."

Asked how he can profess an MK's loyalty to Israel when he has a Palestinian national flag in his lobby, he crafts a neat comeback, or maybe pulls one out of reserve: "In East Jerusalem, the only flag that should be flying is the Palestinian flag. This is occupied land," he says.

It was the day before Tibi's swearing in as a new member of Knesset. The following day, when he rose from his seat in the Knesset chamber and declared, "I pledge" -- as in, pledge allegiance to the State of Israel -- right-wing MK Michael Kleiner called out, "You pledge allegiance to whom?"

"It's a demonstrated fact that Tibi is loyal to the Palestinian Authority, not to the State of Israel," said Kleiner (who favors making Israeli Arabs pass a loyalty test to keep their citizenship) in the Knesset hallway. "I have nothing against him personally, but his presence in the Knesset makes a joke of Israeli democracy."

After being sworn in, Tibi was asked his reaction to Kleiner's catcall. "Did he say something? I didn't hear it," he said.

Making his entrance to the Knesset lobby, he was swarmed by reporters. Dozens of hands reached out to shake his, to wish him, "Mabruk" -- congratulations. Later, walking toward the MK's cafeteria, his face almost glowed with satisfaction, and even a little wonder.

To the right, Tibi's presence in the Knesset is an outrage. He is the classic "fifth column," his detractors maintain -- who knows what national secrets he'll now be able to funnel to Arafat? Tibi, of course, dismisses such talk as "stupid," saying Arafat knows he's no longer a conduit of information, a go-between, an adviser, or a spin doctor, but strictly an Israeli MK.

Yet the irony of his becoming an Israeli lawmaker after years of working so closely with Arafat only enhances Tibi's appeal as an Israeli public figure. He's not only a politician; he's a top-drawer media celebrity, an Israeli pop culture hero.

He shocks Jewish audiences with his brash Arab politics, giving usually better than he gets from his right-wing opponents on the talk shows, yet comes over with such smoothness and charm, in such flowing Hebrew, with such an easy laugh, and he wraps it all in such classy attire, that while Israeli Jews may be shocked by what they think of as Tibi's radicalism, they can't help but be intrigued by his personality. It's a mixed reaction of alarm and fascination that, in pure "rating" terms, registers sharply as audience approval. Israelis can't take their eyes or ears off him.

Tibi knows it, and he plays it to the hilt. Not only is he constantly being interviewed in the news, on the political talk shows, and on the variety shows that also feature "serious" guests, but he even shows up on the comedy and game shows. He was one of the celebrity guests on "Nine in the Square," the Israeli version of "Hollywood Squares." Another time, he was on the Israeli version of "Candid Camera." Tibi says these appearances are part of his mission to "humanize" Arabs to the Israeli public.

Assessing his impact on Israelis, Tibi says, "I think I familiarized nearly every Israeli family with Arafat and the Palestinians, and I tried to do it in a way that Israelis like to hear, yet without compromising my beliefs. I presented a different kind of Palestinian information campaign to the Israeli public so that even if they didn't agree with me, they had to give considerable thought to what I said."

Hebrew University Professor Yaron Ezrahi, a noted analyst of Israeli politics and society, says Tibi's stature in three different, often conflicting, worlds -- Palestinian, Israeli Arab and Israeli Jewish -- puts him in "a strategic position to discuss the nature of our existence here."

He not only discusses, he embodies the friction and overlap between these different worlds, and is, therefore, a "tremendously intriguing figure," Ezrahi says. Tibi keeps Israelis guessing -- is he Palestinian or Israeli? He made Arafat's case in "beautiful, almost literary Hebrew," Ezrahi notes, presenting Israelis with a package of contradictions.

It was Tibi's first meeting with Arafat in 1984 that ushered him into politics. The meeting was arranged by Raymonda Tawil, now Arafat's mother-in-law and at the time a frequent interlocutor of Israeli peace activists seeking "dialogue" with Palestinians. Tibi, then a gynecologist starting out at Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital, recalls that the meeting took place at 2 a.m. in one of Arafat's Tunis apartments. They talked about Israeli government attitudes toward U.N. resolution 242, seen at the time as the key to a breakthrough toward peace.

By now, Tibi says, "when Arafat makes the slightest movement with his head, I know what he's thinking. Nobody in Israel understands him like I do."

On the afternoon he was to be sworn in at the Knesset, Tibi walked the hallway toward the MK's cafeteria. He was looking all around, trying to take everything in. There was a bounce in his step. One got the impression that the air smelled sweet to him.

"If I weren't moved now, I wouldn't be human," he said. "I'm going to have to make a change. I used to be an adviser to the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, and now I'm representing the Arab citizens of Israel in the Knesset. This is all new for me."

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