The Palestinians and the Israeli Communist Party

The Palestinians and the Israeli Communist Party

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The Palestinians and the Israeli Communist Party

Campaign posters for the Arab-led Hadash Party in Umm al-Fahm. Disillusioned, disappointed, and divided, Palestinians from Israel voters will traipse to the polls in ever dwindling numbers, aware that they have no say in how the country is run.



15 January 2013
Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo
Ammar Awad

The Israeli Communist Party (referred to in Hebrew with the acronym “Maki,” short for ha-Miflaga ha-communistit ha-Yisraelit) is a continuation of the Palestine Communist Party, which was founded in 1919 on socialist ideas that were carried by the waves of Jewish immigrants arriving in Palestine. In early 1944, Arab members of the party, whose views had differed from those of Jewish members since the Great Revolt of 1936–39, broke away and announced the establishment of “the National Liberation League in Palestine” (ʿUsbat al-taharrur al-watani fi Filastin). Jewish communists kept the original name of the party.

Early Years

After the proclamation of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948, the party (led by Shmuel Mikunis) decided to change its name to the Israeli Communist Party (ICP). A delegate from the party was included in the People’s Assembly, formed by the Zionist leadership as an “interim council of state.” That was followed by the so-called Unification Conference held on 22 and 23 October 1948 in Haifa, when the Palestinian communists who remained in the areas occupied by Israel and who had been members of the National Liberation League, led by Tawfiq Toubi and Emile Habibi, announced that they would join the ICP. The party also got representation in the Histadrut, or the General Federation of Israeli Trade Unions.

In 1949, as relations between the Soviet Union and the State of Israel deteriorated, the ICP opposed Zionism and demanded the establishment of a Palestinian state in accordance with the partition resolution passed by the UN General Assembly on 29 November 1947. It also opposed the imposition of military rule on the areas that still had an Arab majority. The party took part in the first Knesset elections, held in 1949, and won four seats. Then, in the elections of 1951, it won five seats, and then six seats in the elections held in 1955. In that year, a number of members of the “left wing” of the Zionist-leftist Mapam Party, headed by Moshe Sneh, left the party and joined the ICP.

In April 1959, an Arab nationalist movement named Harakat al-ard (the Land Movement) was started. Then, in late August 1972, a left-wing Arab nationalist movement called Abnaʾ al-balad [Sons of the Land] was also started and drew support from sections of the Palestinian Arab community. The Israeli authorities banned the Land Movement and hounded its leaders, while the Sons of the Land refrained from taking part in parliamentary elections; this meant that the ICP remained the only political force that operated openly among the ranks of Palestinians inside Israel. It became a hub of activity for a large section of Palestinian intellectuals who found in the party’s political and cultural forums, such as al-Ittihad, al-Jadid, and al-Darb, a platform to express their ideas and publish their work. These publications played an active role in preserving the cultural identity of the Arab minority inside Israel.

The Party Splits

However, starting in the early 1960s, a political and intellectual crisis began to develop within the ICP between two factions: one, led by Shmuel Mikunis and Moshe Sneh, defended some of Israel’s policies and took positions that were close to Zionism, and another, led by Meir Vilner, Tawfiq Toubi, and Emile Habibi, remained resolutely hostile to Zionism and aligned more closely with the Soviet Union, siding against Israel on the Palestinian issue and endorsing some of the Arab nationalist policies of Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The rift between the two factions boiled over on 20 May 1965, when the party’s Hebrew-language newspaper Kol Ha-ʿAm (Voice of the People) published two opinion pieces by Sneh and Toubi that offered two contrasting views on the position that the ICP ought to adopt regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. Sneh believed that the party should fight against Jewish and Arab chauvinism alike, stating that as long as the Arabs did not recognize Israel’s right to exist, peace could not be achieved in the Middle East, while Toubi blamed Israel’s rulers, who refused to accept the UN resolutions on the question of Palestine. On 2 August 1965, the two factions decided to hold two separate party conferences, which cemented the rift between them. There were now two separate parties: the Israeli Communist Party (Maki) and the “New Communist List” (Ha-Reshima ha-communistit ha-hadasha, or Rakah for short in Hebrew). The Soviet Union and communist parties around the world recognized Rakah as the sole legitimate communist party in Israel.

In the Knesset elections held in November 1965, the ICP (Maki) won just a single seat, while Rakah garnered three. After the June 1967 war, Maki took the position that Israel had fought a “just” war and did not rule out some border modifications through which Israel would expand beyond its 4 June 1967 borders with its Arab neighbors. The party was now completely under the control of Moshe Sneh, especially after a number of members withdrew from it in 1973. Shmuel Mikunis tendered his resignation from the party leadership, and after a short while, he receded from public life for good. Meanwhile, Rakah succeeded in attracting a large segment of Arab voters and a limited portion of Jewish voters, and it consistently won between three and five seats in subsequent Knesset elections.

Recognition of the PLO and Establishment of Hadash

In 1973, Rakah decided to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, which strengthened its popularity among Palestinian Arabs inside Israel and helped one of its leaders, poet Tawfiq Zayyad, to get elected as mayor of the city of Nazareth, the largest Arab city inside Israel, during the municipal elections of December 1975. Zayyad himself played a prominent part in organizing Land Day (Yawm al-ard) on 30 March 1976. On that day, six Palestinian citizens of Israel were shot dead by Israeli forces, and the day has been commemorated ever since by Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories.

Rakah considered itself close to the PLO and came to be seen as the main representative of the aspirations of the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel. It rejected the principle of Israel as a “Jewish state” and called for guaranteeing the rights of Palestinian refugees in accordance with UN Resolution 194, with the goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In the beginning of May 1977, the relations between Rakah and the PLO took on a more official character, when a delegation of the Rakah leadership, headed by Meir Vilner, met with a delegation from the PLO’s Central Council in Prague, Czechoslovakia. The two delegations issued a joint statement after the meeting, indicating that the two sides “had exchanged viewpoints on issues of joint struggle in an atmosphere of friendship” and that this meeting “will open the door to developing relations between the two sides and all other progressive, democratic forces.”

In an alliance with smaller Arab and Jewish groups that included the Black Panthers organization, Rakah established the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (al-Jabha al-dimuqratiyya li-l-musawa wa-l-salam in Arabic, and ha-Hazit ha-democratit la-shalom ve la-shivion, or Hadash for short in Hebrew) on 15 March 1977.  Since then, the party has contested local and parliamentary elections under this name. The electoral platform on which Hadash (or al-Jabha, as it came to be called in Arabic) campaigned for the Knesset elections of 1977 called for Israel to withdraw immediately from all lands it occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem, to recognize the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and to establish a Palestinian state in the territories occupied in 1967 after Israeli military withdrawal, to recognize the PLO as the official spokesperson for the Palestinian people, to abolish the policy of discrimination and persecution on racial grounds against the Arab masses in Israel in all arenas, to fight for workers’ rights and their interests in the fields of production and public services in the cities and villages, to defend democratic freedoms against the threat of fascism, and to ensure equal rights for women in all arenas. In the Knesset elections held that year (1977), Hadash won five seats, after the party’s approval rating in the Arab community rose to 51 percent. In earlier elections, Rakah had gotten 23 percent of the Arab vote in 1965), 29 percent in 1969), and 37 percent in 1973.

The Collapse of the Soviet Union and the Rise of Palestinian Political Parties in Israel

In 1989, Rakah reverted to its original name, the Israeli Communist Party. A dispute erupted within the ranks of its leadership over what position to take on the Soviet Union’s policy of perestroika, or “reconstruction.” While most of the senior party leaders were apprehensive about the implications of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy, a few of them, led by politburo member Emile Habibi (who was also editor-in-chief of its newspaper al-Ittihad), supported it. As a result of this difference of opinion, Habibi was removed from his position as al-Ittihad’s editor-in-chief; Habibi responded on 8 May of the same year by submitting his resignation from all his leadership positions, and in August 1991 he announced that he was leaving the ICP completely and devoting himself exclusively to his literary writing.

Rakah (subsequently the ICP) had remained the only joint Arab-Jewish party in Israel until 1984, when the organization al-Haraka al-taqaddumiya li-l-salam (Progressive Movement for Peace) was formed and ran in the Knesset elections that year, winning two seats (Hadash won four). Then, it started to face competition from wholly Arab parties that also started to appear and contest Knesset elections: al-Hizb al-ʿArabi al-dimuqrati (the Arab Democratic Party), founded by Abdel Wahab Darawasha in 1988; al-Tajammuʿ al-watani al-dimuqrati (the National Democratic Assembly, or Balad for short in Hebrew), which was founded in 1995 as a result of a coalition of several Palestinian nationalist forces and prominent figures; al-Haraka al-ʿArabiyya li-l-taghyir (the Arab Movement for Change), founded in 1996 by Ahmad al-Tibi; and al-Qaʾima al-ʿArabiyya al-muwahhada (the United Arab List), also established in 1996 as the political front for the Islamic Movement-Southern Wing.

Electoral Politics

The collapse of the Soviet Union on the one hand, and the emergence of Arab parties as competitors to the ICP, on the other, caused a drop in the electoral strength of Hadash in the Arab milieu; it did not receive more than 23 percent of the Arab vote in the Knesset elections of 1992, which, in concrete terms, meant that it won just three seats. In 2014, after the Knesset decision to raise the number of votes needed to meet the electoral threshold, Hadash decided, in agreement with the National Democratic Assembly, the Arab Movement for Change, and the United Arab List, to form an electoral coalition called al-Qaʾima al-mushtaraka (the Joint List), which was formally announced in February 2015 and was headed by Hadash leader Ayman Odeh. In the Knesset elections held in March of that year, it won thirteen seats in the Knesset; among the deputies was a Jewish member of the party. Then in the Knesset elections held in March 2020, the Joint List, still led by Ayman Odeh, caused a political upset by winning fifteen seats, which again included a Jewish representative from Hadash.

Thus, despite the twists and turns that its political sway and electoral strength have gone through, the ICP has preserved its shared Arab-Jewish ethos and maintained its anti-Zionist positions that call for a joint struggle against Israeli occupation and for national equality between Jews and Arabs.

Selected Bibliography: 

Greilsammer, Alain. Les communistes israéliens. Paris: Presses de la Fondation des sciences politiques, 1978.

Kaufman, Ilana. Arab National Communism in the Jewish State. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997.

Nahas, Dunia Habib. The Israeli Communist Party. London: Croom Helm, 1976.

Touma, Emile. “The Political Coming-of-Age of the ‘National Minority’.” Journal of Palestine Studies 14, no. 2 (Winter 1985): 74–83.