Kafe Knesset: Interview with Ahmed Tibi | Comparing the Gantz leak to the DNC hack | Why rockets were fired on Tel Aviv | West Bank terror attack

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Arab List Launches in Tel Aviv — Interview with Ahmed Tibi: Last Wednesday evening the predominantly Arab-Israeli list Hadash-Ta’al — a recent merger between the socialist/communist Hadash led by MK Aymen Odeh and the Palestinian nationalist Ta’al led by MK Ahmed Tibi — held its “Hebrew-language” launch in central Tel Aviv. Red flags adorned the Pi bar off of Rothschild Boulevard; around 200 activists, Jewish and Arab, packed in next to a makeshift stage waiting for the politicians’ speeches. Why a bar? Kafe Knesset asked Tibi just prior to the event. “I hadn’t noticed,” he said with a wry smile, as young people walked by with beers and arak in hand.

But it was a serious effort by the primarily Arab list to appeal to a wider demographic. “Our polls show that we’ll get more Jewish votes than the Joint (Arab) List,” Tibi said, referring to the merger in the outgoing Knesset — since disbanded — of the four Arab parties: Hadash, Ta’al, Ra’am (Islamist), and Balad (Arab nationalist/Nasserist). While the Joint List received 13 seats in the last election, its more extreme factions (Ra’am and Balad, now running together) likely turned off many potential voters. Hadash-Ta’al was putting on a new and more moderate face. We stand for “democratic values,” Tibi went on. “There is no doubt that we’re the address for the Jewish public that’s against the occupation, for peace and equality between Arabs and Jews, and against exclusion.”

Tibi is a veteran politician, arguably the most well-known among all the Arab MKs and close to the Palestinian leadership. A central campaign slogan deployed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is “It’s Bibi or Tibi,” a reference to the dependence (as the PM sees it) of his main rivals in Blue and White on the Arab parties to form a governing coalition. The repeated demonization of Arab votes — and Arab citizens — by Netanyahu has been condemned by many, including President Reuven Rivlin and prominent celebrities. Tibi didn’t mince words: things had definitely gotten worse. “Netanyahu was extreme, and now he’s even more extreme” he told Kafe Knesset. “These aren’t just sayings, it’s a mentality.”

In their public remarks both Tibi and Odeh emphasized the legitimacy of the Arab vote, the attachment to their “homeland” (if not the State of Israel per se), and the need for Arabs and Jews to work together for positive change. Both vowed to fulfill their historic obligation to topple the “racist” and “fascist” Netanyahu government, although there was little love lost for the alternative in Blue and White. “I’m not impressed by someone...who brags about how many Palestinians he killed and how many houses he destroyed,” Tibi said, alluding to Blue and White head Benny Gantz’s early campaign videos. “They’re sucking up to the right,” Odeh observed, but ultimately, he said, they’d need to come to [the Arab parties] for a recommendation to the president.

Their conditions were clear: repealing the controversial Nation-State Basic Law; canceling home demolition orders that primarily impact Arab communities; putting forward a real plan to tackle violence and crime in the Arab sector; and providing additional budgetary support to local Arab municipalities. “They can’t ask for support from Hadash-Ta’al without meeting these demands,” Tibi said. “And if they don’t we’ll be a fighting opposition.”

“Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies,” the crowd chanted when he finished, before later on returning to the normal business of a Tel Aviv bar: smoking, drinking, and wondering if April 9 will in fact change anything.  

The Arab-Israeli Vote Explained: While making up approximately 20 percent of the Israeli population, the politics of the Arab-Israeli community is severely underreported. For a useful primer on the various parties and personalities, as well as the priorities driving Arab-Israeli voters, Kafe Knesset highly recommends listening to The Tipping Point podcast episode from last week featuring political analyst Mohammad Darawshe. For Arab voters, it’s always a “dance,” he said, between “identity and constitutional issues versus social and economic accomplishments that we expect from the Knesset…along with the one big...cross-border issue, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict”….

Gantz’s Smartphone Allegedly Hacked by Iran: An already unpredictable election campaign was again thrown for a loop when Channel 12’s Amit Segal reported Thursday evening that Benny Gantz’s smartphone had allegedly been hacked by Iran….

The Shin Bet domestic intelligence service had, according to Segal, informed Gantz of the breach weeks ago, a period just prior to Gantz’s entry into politics. The report stressed that at no point was there a question of sensitive security intelligence falling into enemy hands — Gantz’s term as IDF chief of staff ended four years ago — but rather possibly delicate personal or political details. There were reports of some anger within the Blue and White leadership over the fact that their candidate for PM hadn’t informed his partners of the hack, although their ire was quickly directed at Netanyahu and the Likud as the likely source of the leak….

At a hastily called press conference on the Gaza border late Friday afternoon, an angry Gantz dismissed the story as “political, gossipy and completely delusional.” He rejected rumors that he was now susceptible to extortion, with the party adding that there was “no security information, no embarrassing videos, and he was never a target of blackmail.” Earlier today Blue and White called on the Attorney General to launch an investigation into who exactly leaked word of the hack to the press. Yet as senior Blue and White MK Ofer Shelach told Army Radio, there was no doubt that “the source of this report is from Netanyahu’s circle”….

The Shin Bet, for its part, took the unusual step of saying it had at no point informed the PM of the hack, although many commentators pointed out that the various agencies who deal with such cyber intelligence threats — Shin Bet, Mossad, Military Intelligence, and the National Cyber Directorate — all report directly to Netanyahu. While the public conversation in recent days has fixated on the source of the media leak and whether it was really an Iranian hack (or some other actor, including potentially Israeli) it remains to be seen whether the cellphone’s contents will begin seeping out. Many observers have already pointed to the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee as a precedent: the drip-drip of embarrassing emails impacting an election campaign, throwing the democratic process into chaos….

Rockets Fired On Tel Aviv: Two rockets were fired at Tel Aviv from the Gaza Strip Thursday night, in the first such attack on central Israel since the 2014 Gaza war. According to the IDF, one rocket landed in an open area (likely the sea) while the fragments of another were found in Holon, just south of Tel Aviv. Contrary to initial reports, the Iron Dome anti-rocket system was not activated during the salvo — although sirens went off in the Dan Region. In response, IDF jets and attack helicopters struck 100 times inside Gaza later that night, targeting Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad military assets. Indicatively, there were no Palestinian casualties reported….

Both Hamas and Israel later called it a “mistake” by unknown Hamas operatives inside Gaza, a useful line for both parties that likely avoided a more severe Israeli response and wider escalation. Egyptian intelligence officials successfully brokered a ceasefire that has held since Friday morning….

The long-range rocket salvo came just a few hours after reports of internal protests by ordinary Gazans against the Hamas authorities. Under the slogan of “Let Us Live,” demonstrators clamoring for economic and humanitarian relief in the territory clashed with Hamas security forces. The last two days, too, have seen follow-up protests on the streets of Gaza. Hamas has forcefully cracked down on protesters with batons and live fire in the air, as well as widespread arrests (including of those reporting on and filming the protests)….

Gazans are for the first time on a sustained basis publicly criticizing their Hamas rulers; tellingly, for the first time in a year, the group canceled the Friday marches on the border fence. It remains to be seen whether the demonstrations continue in the coming days. If they do, more rocket fire on Israel — and worse — is a real possibility. Authoritarian regimes often try to deflect the anger of their populations outwards….

West Bank Terror Attack: Early this morning a terror attack took place in the West Bank just outside the settlement of Ariel. As military sources told Kafe Knesset, a suspected Palestinian attacker stabbed an IDF soldier at a bus stop and stole his assault rifle, after which he fired on three passing vehicles. Commandeering one of the cars, the assailant continued to a nearby junction, opening fire and injuring another soldier. A massive manhunt, including IDF special forces, is currently underway in the area. As of this writing one Israeli has been confirmed killed and two others are in serious condition….

The Week Ahead: The political system is awaiting an imminent decision from the Supreme Court regarding the disqualification of both far right and far left candidates for the election. The candidacies of Michael Ben-Ari, the head of the Kahanist Jewish Power, and Ofer Kassif, a Jewish candidate on the Hadash-Ta’al slate, are both in question, as is the entire Ra’am-Balad party…..

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will arrive in Israel this week as part of a wider Middle East tour that also includes Lebanon and Kuwait. The State Department indicated that Pompeo’s meetings in Jerusalem will focus on the regional threat from Iran, combating anti-Semitism, and natural gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean.