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Could Ayman Odeh Determine Who Becomes Israel’s Next Prime Minister?

In a fiery speech, the country’s top Arab politician imagines what was previously considered impossible: a Jewish-Arab coalition to topple Benjamin Netanyahu

Elhanan Miller
March 05, 2019
Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images
Ayman Odeh in 2015.Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images
Ayman Odeh in 2015.Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

Israel’s Arab parties have never been part of the government coalition. But with elections just one month away, and the Zionist opposition in a frenzy to dethrone Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s top Arab politician has begun imagining the unimaginable.

“We’re only 20 percent of the Israeli population and can’t do it alone, but without us it would be impossible,” Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List, told a Jewish audience at a packed event in Jerusalem this week. “The questions of occupation and racism have always been debated over our heads, but there can be no true democracy or peace without the critical mass of Arabs in Israel.”

Ahead of elections, the Joint List, currently the third-largest bloc in parliament, has split into two factions: Islamist Ra’am and Arab Nationalist Balad will run together, while Odeh’s socialist Hadash party will join forces with Ta’al, headed by veteran parliamentarian Ahmad Tibi. According to the most recent polls, Odeh’s party is expected to win between seven and nine seats in the elections, making his list a vital element in the left-right tug of war.

Netanyahu’s Likud has quickly adapted to this new political reality. In media interviews, government ministers began reciting the slogan “it’s Bibi or Tibi,” a motto created for the 1996 elections when Netanyahu defeated incumbent Shimon Peres.

The slogan, Odeh concurred, was accurate about the alternative facing Israelis. “There is one man in the state of Israel who understands this equation better than I do. His name is Benjamin Netanyahu,” Odeh said. “Netanyahu was opposition leader in the early 1990s when Rabin was prime minister. Rabin built his government in 1992 thanks to an obstructive bloc created with the Arab parties. Thanks to the Arab population, Netanyahu had no majority in 1999. For him this isn’t theoretical; it’s existential. Delegitimizing the Arab citizens is his political strategy.”

While it may be foreign to some American readers, the notion of an obstructive bloc is key in Israeli politics: Because Israelis vote for parties, not individual candidates, and because any single party rarely captures enough votes to form a majority by itself, the president assigns the task of putting together a cabinet to the head of the party he believes has the highest chance of forming a sustainable coalition. This means that the heads of the largest parties scramble to paste together political blocs designed to secure their own majority and block their rivals’ path to the highest office in the land. Under this arrangement, the Arab parties do not necessarily have to become part of the government to secure any one candidate’s ascendance, as they’d done for Rabin decades ago.

This year, Benny Gantz hopes to follow in Rabin’s footsteps. The former chief of staff leads the new Blue and White political party together with Yair Lapid, and is currently enjoying a slight advantage in the polls over Netanyahu’s Likud. But the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism have already declared they would not endorse Blue and White to form the government given Yair Lapid’s past anti-Haredi positions, and the hard-right parties Jewish Home and Naftali Bennett’s New Right would certainly prefer Netanyahu, too. That leaves Blue and White with the dwindling left-wing parties Labor and Meretz, and with the Arab list as a very likely tiebreaker.

But would Gantz and Lapid really prefer a coalition with the left and the Arabs to a partnership with Likud? Highly doubtful. As head of the Yesh Atid party, in 2013 Lapid famously rejected any political alliance with “the Zoabis,” a derogatory reference to Arab members of Knesset relating to firebrand Arab politician Hanin Zoabi. Lapid quickly apologized for his comments, and the Balad legislator has since resigned from politics, but the racist sting lingers on in Arab memory.

“In the political center we have parties who speak about us with hostility, or at the very least with indecision,” Odeh noted, recalling the “Zoabis” comment. But he hinted he may be willing to swallow his pride in order to dethrone Netanyahu.

“Our main goal is to change the government in Israel,” he said. “This government has incited against the Arab citizens more than all previous governments put together. There’s no doubt about that. ”

Odeh said he would dedicate his time following elections to build a “huge democratic Jewish-Arab camp.” Meanwhile, he said he is open to coalition negotiations with any party promoting the cause of peace with the Palestinians and civil equality for Jews and Arabs within Israel.

“If we see a minimum of goodwill on these issues, we will study the matter seriously and decide which candidate to recommend to the president [as prime minister],” Odeh said. “We are here to make a difference and influence government. If we find a partner, we would love to become influential in Israeli politics.”

Odeh was nevertheless realistic as to the slim chances of joining a Gantz-Lapid government, at least at first. Rebuffing Netanyahu’s claims that he would inevitably side with the Arab parties, Benny Gantz said he “will call for a unity government with all parties, including with Likud, which will join us, and anyone else who is Zionist and sane.” That would apparently exclude Odeh and Tibi.

“The Zionist left has contributed to the process of delegitimization against us,” Odeh said. “I don’t think they’ll invite us at the beginning of their term. I think they’ll turn to Likud first, but perhaps we can join in a year or so. I’m prepared to join them from day one if they commit to a direction of peace and equality.”

“Gantz and Lapid should sweat a little bit,” he added. “We’re in nobody’s pocket.”

But he also admitted political miscalculation on the part of his own Joint List. Ahead of the previous elections in 2015, Odeh sought to forge a political pact with Meretz on the Jewish left but was blocked by his Islamist and nationalist partners.

“Not signing a voter surplus agreement with Meretz was a mistake,” Odeh said. “I came to Jerusalem, I was ready to sign, but Balad and the Islamic Movement were opposed. I preferred to maintain the unity.”

Reuniting with the more extreme Arab parties after the elections remains an option for Odeh, though he deeply disagrees with them on the basics of the two-state solution.

“The Jewish people have the right to self-determination,” he said, noting that his party, Hadash, is the only manifestly Arab-Jewish party in Israel. “I support the establishment of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders alongside Israel. If everyone in this land would be in favor of a single democratic state, that would be great. But I’m realistic: The free will of both peoples favors two states. From a moral standpoint, I have no right to ask the Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank to wait another 30 years until a one-state reality is achieved.”

Some political analysts predict a drop in Arab voting rates next month due to the political split within the Joint List. Odeh said a low Arab turnout would only benefit the grim status quo.

“No one stands to lose more from a low voting rate than the Arabs, and no one stands to gain more than Netanyahu,” Odeh said. “We must decide: Either we’re full citizens fighting for legitimacy and influence in Israel, or we’ve given up and want an alternative framework. But we’ve created no alternative.”

Elhanan Miller (@ElhananMiller) is a Jerusalem-based reporter specializing in the Arab world.