Meretz MK Issawi Frej, an Israeli-Arab politician and accountant who has served two stints in the Knesset, is likely going to be appointed Minister of Regional Cooperation in the Bennett-Lapid government which may or may not come to life on Tuesday or Wednesday. On Monday night, Frej was hosted by right-wing Channel 20 host Yaara Zered who at one point was a campaign spokesperson for the Likud party.
One of the benefits of watching an interview of an honest Arab politician by an honest Israeli journalist is that both don’t lie. And so, on Monday night, every hard-hitting question from Zered was met with an unabashed response from Frej. I translated for the benefit of our readers who are still waiting for their first ulpan class. We’ll start with the final round of questions, which made all the headlines. But I ask that you try to get through the rest of the vivacious interview which is a poignant exchange between the most right-wing news outlet and one of the most left-wing Arab politicians in Israel. But first, the Palestinian State thing:
Zered: In the next government, MK Frej, will you promote a Palestinian State or the eviction of Jews from their homes?
Frej: I dream of the two-state solution. I believe that in this coming term there will not be a two-state solution.
Zered: You mean to tell me that as Minister of Regional Cooperation, in your talks with regional countries and the US you won’t raise the option of a two-state solution?
Frej: I will raise this option and I will talk about the Palestinian issue because I believe that all the doors will open the minute we bring about a solution for the Palestinian problem. I do not evade this and I say it as straightforward as possible: I said it, and I will continue to say it.
Co-host Ari Gilhar: In other words, you’ll prepare everything for the government that will come later where you’ll be able to apply it.
Frej: Inshallah [Allah willing], because there’s past, there’s present, and there’s future. And there’s an important saying: “The past is not here, the present is still here, the future is in the blink of an eye.” Let’s work together on building a strong present to be able to usher in a good future.
At this point, both hosts were apparently overwhelmed by the Arab MK’s sincerity, and that part of the interview was clipped and tweeted all over the place.
— ערוץ 20 (@arutz20) May 31, 2021
But for the sake of understanding more of the nuance of Issawi Frej’s possible role in the next four years or so of Israeli politics, I recommend reading the rest of the interview.
Hey, I worked hard on translating it…
Zered: Yes, we’re back. MK Issawi Frej from Meretz is joining us, Shalom, shalom.
Frej: Shalom, shalom to you.
Zered (to Gilhar): Ari, he is soon going to be Minister for Regional Cooperation.
Gilhar: True, and it might be interesting to ask him what, in the framework of his plans, he thinks of doing for regional cooperation.
Zered (interrupting): First of all, are you opening the champagne?
Frej: You want a little… friends…
Zered: So come, tell me, what’s the probability that today or tomorrow Yair Lapid will say, I have succeeded, and on Wednesday a new government is sworn in?
Frej: I believe that we are going in the right direction, we will establish a change government. It’s true, there are stumbling blocks, as everyone is saying. But we’re past the difficult things in the right direction and there will be a change government that will put an end to the anarchy government we’re seeing.
Zered: What do you mean by “change government” – it’s a left-wing government.
Frej: Why left? Why left?
Zered: There’s the left, there’s a right-wing minority, it’s a left-wing government. You don’t have to be shy, don’t launder your words, we’re on Channel 20.
Frej: There are seven parties.
Frej: Is Sa’ar left-wing? Is Bennett left-wing?
Zered: We could argue that one. They’re an ideological right that fully joined the left.
Frej: Labor used to be with Bibi (in a 2013 coalition government – DI). Gantz was with Bibi (still is – DI). They were all there. Friends, we are establishing a government after 12 years.
Zered: What are the landmines now in the process of establishing a government? I hear about Gantz, I hear…
Frej: Look, I won’t comment on what’s going on in other parties, I’ll relate to what’s going on in my party, Meretz. We have behind us an agreement of understandings, I believe that tomorrow we will submit a coalition agreement tomorrow or the day after to the president that, indeed, Lapid and Bennett have managed to establish a government. On our side, things have been finalized generally. We can live with the basic understandings. To tell you the truth, this is a status quo government.
Frej: Period. I’m straightforward with you.
Zered: So let’s continue to be straightforward. If now you need to make a decision, you won’t be part of the [foreign/security] cabinet but others from your party will be there, and there’s a security demand to attack a certain state, let’s say, let’s say –
Frej: Gaza? Rockets? Say it already…
Zered: Biden says, don’t attack in Syria – how do Meretz and this government that avoids dealing with anything act?
Frej: Listen, I want to tell you only one thing. Any rocket that targets the State of Israel hits both Arabs and Jews. And the rockets that fell in the south, I and my family went into the bomb shelter. The rocket does not skip over Muhammad and hits Moshe, they’re all under the same threat.
Zered: Unfortunately, two Arab citizens were killed.
Frej: Exactly. So all the fantasy and the extremist questions that you raise…
Zered: It’s not realistic? It’s not realistic, MK Frej?
Frej: It’s not realistic. I’ll tell you. The policy of the past 12 years, the policy that has brought us to where we are today, we will promote a different policy.
Zered: Different how?
Frej: A policy of mending rips, a policy of healing society from within (responding to questions from both hosts), but Israeli society is not healthy. We saw it two weeks ago.
Gilhar: Does it mean the government will initiate programs whereby citizens from all kinds of fringes will meet on the street or all kinds of places in a meeting of unity and uniting?
Frej: Don’t play innocent, do me a favor.
Gilhar: Then explain what it means.
Frej: You’ve heard the concept of “policy?”
Frej: What’s the meaning of policy? In the state of Israel, there are population groups: Haredim, Religious, Arabs, Jews, everything, OK? The time has come—I’m talking about my side—that after 73 years, to integrate the one million eight hundred thousand Arabs into Israeli society. When I say, we need healing, what we experienced over the past month was enraging and outrageous.
Gilhar: What does it mean? You’re not offering details.
Frej: The State of Israel has an asset which is the relationship between Jews and Arabs. I must leverage and strengthen this asset and not neglect it.
Gilhar: It’s true, but you’re not breaking it down to its details. I’m asking for the benefit of the viewers at home, what does it mean? We know how terrible and horrible the situation is, and about the 12 years of anarchy, but how will you go about dealing with it in reality? How will you connect this nation? We want to join together, Issawi, join us together…
Frej: Very good. You raised the issue of meetings – I want Jewish and Arab children to start meeting each other at an early age. I don’t want that you –
Zered: For that, you don’t need –
Frej: It’s policy. It’s the policy of the Education Ministry, government policy, a policy of inclusion, a policy of togetherness, that’s a very important thing.
Zered: Now I’m telling you, you talk about tears in the fabric of society, but when an Arab public attacks a Jewish public it’s not the rips in society, it’s a religious war, it’s a war over land, it’s not tears in the fabric.
Frej: I disagree with you. I’ll tell you why I don’t agree with you. There’s no such thing as something out of nothing. First of all…
Zered: There are people here who are warmongers, and they have advocated for years against the Jewish public in Israel.
Frej: No, no, no. I don’t agree. I don’t agree.
Zered: Issawi, you were a lone voice against the violence.
Frej: I’m not a lone voice.
Zered: Where were Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh?
Frej: The minority of a minority that’s pulling us to the deep where we should not be – both Arab and Jewish – we the silent majority must express our cry, to say, Enough. And as to your question, I don’t come from the gardens of shared life. I grew up in Kafr Kassem, I know the meaning of hate, and hate is the easiest. I came from the rage, from the fear, I came from there and I know. […] What you’re saying, this hate, is part of a process. Who caused this process? In the past 12 years, the incitement and alienation of Arabs and Jews…
Zered: Let’s the two of us, MK Frej, walk the streets of Tel Aviv, I’ll catch more curses than you will.
Frej: I disagree. […] You don’t have to say this because you’re on Channel 20.
Zered: It’s the truth.
Zered: The broadcast booth of Channel 20 is attacked every day. Come with us to Habima and you’ll see.
A debate ensues over whether or not Channel 20 should have a permanent booth in front of the national theater in Tel Aviv. Frej compares it to MK Itamar Ben-Gvir’s permanent tent in Sheikh Jarah. They move on.
Zered: What worries us is what will happen with Gaza, what will happen with Iran…
Frej: It’ll be good.
Zered: And I’ll ask you again, can the Meretz party vote in support of an attack on Gaza should Hamas attack us.
Frej: You’re repeating your question.
Zered: It’s the central question, security.
Frej: Very good. The Meretz party and any other party cares about the security of the state not any less than anyone else. Now imagine that all of us are sitting around the same table – Issawi Frej, Bennett, Elkin, all of us. We have one goal: how to make this place, Israel, safer and better for living.
Zered: That’s cute, but let’s talk about reality. The nuclear deal. What will you do?
Frej: Iran is not only my problem, but it’s also a problem for the whole world.
Zered: Ah, it’s nice what you’re saying.
Frej: There are international agreements [being forged now]. I need to be part of them and not turn my back.
Zered: You’re saying, I will go along with Biden and the world on Iran…
Frej: I am part of the international community.
Zered: And you don’t think that Iran wants to first attack Israel and then the entire world.
Frej: The evil of Iran must be seen by the whole world not only by us. If I want to pull an “Abu Ali” (a lone, arrogant act) that’s not wise. I need to be part of the international solution and according to the agreement which is being offered. After all, you don’t doubt the special relationship between the United States and Israel, do you?
Zered: But we’ve had a prime minister who said that Iran wants to first annihilate us, not the US, and certainly not the Arab states. And he exposed their nuclear archive and how much they’ve been lying to the entire world.
Frej: You said it, we have a Rambo prime minister, he’s saying it for political propaganda, there was a state before Bibi and there will still be one after him.
Gilhar tells Frej he is not convinced about Meretz’s contribution to the security decisions of the new cabinet, Frej reminds him that Meretz participated in security cabinets in the past.
Gilhar: You come from the Arab sector, you’re in Meretz, and according to reports you pushed to establish this government. You are the Arab voice there, you’re going to be a minister, what change will you bring to the Arab sector? You’re going to be Minister for Regional Cooperation. What is your vision?
Frej: I’ll give it to you in one sentence. As soon as I become Minister of Regional Cooperation I promise to come to Channel 20 and discuss all my plans. It all starts with words and dreams. […] I’ll tell you something: I dream of being Shimon Peres and of a new Middle East. […] And I challenge you, invite me and see the achievements of the change government compared with the previous one.
Zered: Finally, Bennett is the prime minister. What’s the connection between Meretz and Labor and Bennett the messianic?
Frej: very good. Imagine the unique thing Lapid has done – Yamina, the left, the center, he put them around the same table. This has to be a government of agreements. Maybe it’s time to put ideology aside because there’s life. And when I compromise on something to get something because I can’t get everything. It’s part of the ideology.