'Tibi, Not Bibi': The Palestinian Who Stood Up To Pence On Why He Could Be the Region's Next Leader

Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics revealed a figure on Monday that will concern the country's nationalistic right wing: As many Muslims (6.5 million) now live alongside Jews (6.44 million) between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. But for one man in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire, that number is full of encouragement.

As the election of President Donald Trump and the policies of a right-wing Israeli coalition government render a two-state solution more distant than ever, Ahmad Tibi believes the region's next leader could an Arab lawmaker. In one word, him.

"Tibi will be the prime minister, not Bibi. From the sea to the river, we are more. It's a nightmare for the Israelis," he said, referring to the nickname for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In a one-state solution, the deputy speaker of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, is confident that he would win enough votes if that state held equal rights for Arabs and Jews, and a one-person, one-vote system. But Israel will prevent this outcome, he predicted, speaking exclusively to Newsweek.

Ahmad Tibi, deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset and Israel's most popular Arab politician, looks out from the balcony of his East Jerusalem apartment on February 2. Jack Moore/Newsweek

"They will not accept it," he said. "What they will do? One state with apartheid. Two groups of citizens: one with rights, one without."

It's Friday, a holy day in East Jerusalem, but Tibi said he doesn't take days off. As the Palestinian member of the Knesset prepared to leave for a television interview, he looked out from the balcony of his residence in the Beit Hanina neighborhood, pointing in the direction of Pisgat Ze'ev and Ramot, two settlements in close proximity.

"I really support the vision of a two-state solution. But both Netanyahu and Trump killed it," he said, referring to the Israeli and American leaders. "They killed this vision. Settlements are being enhanced."

Not only is he angry at Trump but also at his vice president, Mike Pence. Tibi, a member of the Arab Joint List, is one of five Palestinian lawmakers in Israel who stood up and protested as Pence became the first U.S. vice president to address the Knesset.

Tibi, 59, and his colleagues raised an image of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, two of the holiest sites in Islam and Christianity, as Trump's second-in-command delivered his speech to the Knesset.

It was a reaction to Trump's December 6 announcement that he had ordered the relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, upending decades of American foreign policy and threatening to inflame the region's Muslims.

The poster read in Arabic, "East Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine." Israeli security guards forcibly removed the politicians from the chamber, as well as their other Joint List colleagues who did not lift the image.

"I am proud of what we did," Tibi said. "Pence said it's a democracy. But [our removal] is a proof of a lack of democracy."

Israel's Arab parliamentary bloc and Knesset members hold signs in protest as security members scuffle with them during the speech of US Vice President Mike Pence in Israel's parliament in Jerusalem, on January 22, 2018. Ariel Schalit/AFP/Getty

Arab 'Hero'

Palestinian and Iraqi paintings, showing scenes of Arab heritage, adorn the walls of Tibi's apartment, alongside graduation photos of his two daughters. He is a proud Arab. But he commands respect from both sides of the aisle in Israeli society.

Born and raised in Taybeh, in central Israel, he speaks fluent Hebrew, is a trained physician and is known for publicly railing against Holocaust denial, flying in the face of Israeli accusations of anti-Semitism among Palestinian sections of society.

In the green room at Israel's Channel 2 station, Tibi was relaxed, complaining that Arabs only get half an hour of airtime every week on "The Second Channel." Those around him again praise him. The first Bedouin ambulance driver in Israel, due to appear on the same show, calls him a "hero."

Station staffer Amal Darawshy said Tibi is different from the other Arab politicians in Israel and those in the Palestinian Authority that preside over the West Bank. "He's perfect. Others just say. He says and he does."

An East Jerusalem taxi driver said he wants Tibi to become leader of his people, whatever that may entail. He has grassroots support, and the polls reflect that. He is the most popular Arab politician among Israel's Arab population.

Of Israel's Arabs, Tibi said he wants them to "continue the struggle in order to be an equal citizen" in the country. But for those in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, he "will not at any time stop struggling for the rights for my Palestinian people," wherever they are.

"First, I am Palestinian," he said, eschewing his Israeli identity. "Second, I am a peace lover, and occupation should be ended."

But could he ever become the leader of a Palestinian state? No, said a Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, because Tibi has Israeli citizenship and would be rejected outright by most Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But that does not appear to dampen his optimism one bit.

So too say Israel's right-wing lawmakers, who claim that the new demographic statistics released Monday are "fake news." Amir Ohana, a lawmaker in Netanyahu's ruling Likud Party, said Tibi will never become the region's leader because the Palestinians would presumably have to vote under the Israeli system, something those in Gaza and the West Bank would never do. Tibi is personally liked for his wit and smarts, he added.

"That's precisely what makes him so dangerous, because he's spreading ideas of racism, hate and incitement to violence," Ohana said.

Ahmad Tibi shown appearing on Israel's Channel 2 news station in the green room at the broadcaster's studio in Jerusalem. Jack Moore / Newsweek

A Dwarf State

Tibi said he believes that Israel's ideas for Palestinian independence are humiliating. Partial statehood would render a Palestinian nation a "dwarf state," he said, and ideas such as the town of Abu Dis becoming the capital of any future Palestinian state are "total nonsense." It all "begins from here, Jerusalem," he said.

The Israeli right wants "soft Arabs" in the Knesset who will not challenge the consensus. He will never become that, he said. "We will continue to fight, to be angry when needed, to demand our rights."

He calls Hamas a "legitimate movement," pointing to its 2006 election victory in Gaza. But he said the group should now hold new elections after more than a decade since the last vote in the enclave. It has not held elections since it routed an attempted takeover by rival Palestinian faction Fatah in 2007.

On Jerusalem, Tibi is angered by the reaction of the Islamic world, accusing some nations of "betraying the Palestinian cause" by not preventing Trump's moves. "The Islamic world, they can do more, especially for East Jerusalem. Some of the Arab and Muslim world are stabbing a knife in the back of Palestinians. They feel abandoned," he said, refusing to name specific actors.

For him, it falls upon the international community to reject "long-term apartheid" of the Palestinian people. But any final peace deal will have to include the Palestinians and their approval, he said. "Regional peace on behalf of Palestinians, putting Palestinians aside, is a betrayal." Just this week, the White House held a conference on the situation in Gaza—an enclave controlled by Hamas but restricted by Israel and Egypt—without any Palestinian representation present.

Up against what he says is the most right-wing government in Israeli history, with a defense minister who lives in a West Bank settlement and coalition members from the far right of the Israeli political spectrum, Tibi said racism against Arabs and Palestinians has "become mainstream in Israeli society."

He has faced attacks in Israel personally. An Israeli was jailed for four months in 2016 for a December 2013 attack in which he threw steaming tea over Tibi at a rally in the southern city of Beersheba. Tibi was left with burns to his face and his eyes. He said he faces "bad talk" on a daily basis, including death threats. He has a driver and security "when needed" because, he said, there is an increased incitement against Israel's Arabs and the community's lawmakers, including by Netanyahu.

"Sometimes we are worried, but we will continue to work, we will continue to struggle. I cannot stop. I symbolize something for my people," he said. "But the situation is very volatile."

But at the Abu Ghosh restaurant in the Arab town of the same name, you would not know it. Both Arab and Jewish clientele approach him to shake his hand. As he sat down for a selection of kebabs and meze platters, the Palestinian owner feted him. "This is the most important man in the Middle East," he said.