Arab political leader Ayman Odeh says he won’t run for office again

Surprise announcement by head of erstwhile Joint List catches some colleagues off guard, as MK said looking to make room for new blood — or possibly run for Haifa mayor

Joint List party chairman Ayman Odeh seen at the party headquarters in the city of Shfaram, on election night, March 23, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Joint List party chairman Ayman Odeh seen at the party headquarters in the city of Shfaram, on election night, March 23, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Hadash head Ayman Odeh, the longtime leader of the country’s main Arab political bloc, said Tuesday he will not run for office again.

Odeh is expected to remain in the Knesset until the next election.

He gave no reason for the move, which caught many in his party off guard, saying only that part of his job was “knowing when to take a step back and look at the bigger picture,” but it came as his popularity has sunk in recent years, with the union of parties he once led now splintered and relegated to the sidelines.

As head of Hadash, a left-wing Arab party with communist ties, Odeh led the Joint List of his faction and three other Arab parties from its inception in 2015, taking Arab politics to near-unprecedented levels of Knesset representation. However, he has struggled to transform gains at the ballot box into political influence, with Arab parties often shunned by mainstream Jewish Israeli politicians, and themselves often rejecting cooperation with the governing coalition or formal opposition.

Today, only Hadash and Ta’al remain allied, after Islamist Ra’am split off to blaze its own path by cooperating with Zionist parties. Palestinian nationalist faction Balad, which also split off, failed to enter the Knesset in the last election.

“Over the last eight years I’ve been there for some of the most beautiful moments in our society, including amazing achievements that resulted from tough battles and unity,” Odeh said in a brief message from his office announcing his decision.

He said he would remain involved in Arab public life and fight for the two main issues plaguing Arab society: “Building unity in Arab society and with our Jewish partners, and peace between the two peoples.”

In a statement, Hadash said Odeh would remain in the position until the end of his term, which could potentially last nearly another four years should the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu survive that long.

Hadash leader Ayman Odeh points during a press conference with lawmakers from the allied Hadash-Ta’al faction as they register their party list on September 15, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A statement from Hadash-Ta’al noted that Odeh was stepping down because “a leader knows when to make room for the next generation.”

According to Channel 12 news, which broke the story of the resignation before the official announcement, Odeh had become disillusioned with Israeli politics and felt Arab leadership in Israel needed new blood so the Joint List could be cobbled back together.

The Joint List was a marriage of convenience between Arab parties after the Knesset raised the percentage of votes needed to enter the Knesset, forcing them to join up rather than scrap for the same pool of votes. Odeh was chosen as its leader by dint of having taken control of Hadash that same year, and his youthful charisma was credited with helping boost the list’s fortunes. Before falling apart, the amalgamated list was regularly the third-largest in the Knesset with 13-15 seats.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh speaks during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on April 19, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

But Arab political analyst Ehab Jabareen said Odeh had been losing influence in recent years.

“It’s not surprising because he doesn’t have a real chance [in the primary],” Jabareen told The Times of Israel. “He lost a lot of his power within Hadash. He was never very stable, he always moved between camps in the party.”

Odeh served as secretary general of Hadash from 2006 to 2015 and before that sat on the city council in his native Haifa. Some media outlets speculated that Odeh may be preparing to run for mayor of Israel’s third-largest city.

Ayman Odeh, carrying one of his three children, casting his vote in Nazareth on Israel’s Election Day, March 17, 2015. (Basal Awidat/Flash90)

Former MK Issam Makhoul, who chairs the Hadash movement, expressed annoyance that Odeh had sprung the announcement with no warning.

“We didn’t know about it beforehand… We were in the national headquarters on Saturday and it never came up. It should have been mentioned if thoughts like that were in the air,” he said in comments carried by the Walla news site, adding that the party would not try to block his resignation.

“If this were about him wanting to quit politics, I would understand,” he added. “But for a statement that won’t be realized until 2026 — I would suggest waiting at least until 2025.”

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