Ayman Odeh sets out terms for helping Gantz’s Blue and White defeat Netanyahu

Hadash-Ta’al leader says he could recommend Benny Gantz to form next coalition, describes PM’s campaign rhetoric as a strategic effort to delegitimize Arab parties

Adam Rasgon is a former Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Hadash leader Ayman Odeh in the Knesset, January 28, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Hadash leader Ayman Odeh in the Knesset, January 28, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The leader of one of the Knesset’s largest Arab-majority parties is open to backing the formation of a center-left government by recommending the Blue and White party’s Benny Gantz for prime minister.

But Hadash-Ta’al leader Ayman Odeh said he would not be willing to support former IDF chief Gantz for the top job without clear commitments from Gantz and his co-leader Yair Lapid to advance some of his faction’s positions.

Hadash-Ta’al backing for Blue and White would give the latter party a much-needed shot in the arm in its bid to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from office after a decade in power.

“We hope to influence decision-making and we do not want to permit the creation of another extremist government led by Netanyahu that constantly incites against us,” Odeh told The Times of Israel in an interview at his party’s small Jerusalem headquarters in an old apartment in the center of the city.

“We would be willing to recommend Gantz and Lapid to Rivlin to stop the formation of a right-wing government, but they need to show us they are willing to negotiate peace with the [Ramallah-based] Palestinian leadership, support equality for all citizens including Arabs, increase budgets to the local authorities in Arab villages and cancel the nation-state law,” he said, referring to controversial legislation passed in July 2018 that enshrined Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” but omitted a reference to the equality of all Israeli citizens akin to the one made in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

Blue and White party leaders Benny Gantz (L) and Yair Lapid embrace after giving a statement to the media in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

In the days following the elections, every party that wins seats in the Knesset will inform President Reuven Rivlin who it recommends should serve as prime minister. Thereafter, Rivlin most likely will grant the person recommended by most MKs the opportunity to form a coalition.

After the last elections in 2015, the Joint List — the alliance of Arab parties led by Odeh in the outgoing Knesset — did not recommend Isaac Herzog, who was then Netanyahu’s main challenger, nor anyone else.

Odeh said neither Gantz nor Lapid has contacted him, Ta’al chairman MK Ahmad Tibi, nor anyone else on their slate.

The Blue and White party may need to rely on the recommendation of Hadash-Ta’al if it wants the chance to form a coalition — although even that may not prove sufficient. A number of right-wing and Haredi parties have either said or suggested they will not recommend Blue and White, meaning a Hadash-Ta’al recommendation in its favor could be a crucial factor. Still, many polls currently suggest Netanyahu will be better placed to form a coalition, with more supporters in smaller parties, even if Likud gets three to five seats fewer than Blue and White, as the polls predict.

Odeh also noted that if Gantz and Lapid consent to his party’s demands and ultimately decide to form a minority government, Hadash-Ta’al, as members of the opposition, would not vote for resolutions to dissolve it.

“If they are working for peace and equality, why would we want to bring their government down?” he asked.

If Blue and White establishes a government composed of less than 60 members of Knesset, it would need assurances from some lawmakers in the opposition that they would not vote in favor of motions to dissolve the coalition.

In the 1990s while negotiating the Oslo Accords, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who headed a minority government at the time, relied on Arab parties in the opposition to block such resolutions.

Odeh described Hadash-Ta’al’s demands of Blue and White as reasonable, arguing that the Gantz-led party realistically could accept them but noting that he thought it was still not prepared to do so.

A view of the Israeli Arab town of Sakhnin (YouTube screen capture)

“We are not asking them to recognize the Nakba or support the ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees,” he said, employing an Arabic term that alludes to the dispossession Arabs experienced in the wake of Israel’s founding in 1948 and the subsequent war between the Jewish state and Arab countries. “That being said, I still do not think Lapid and Gantz have matured to the point where they can accept our positions.”

Gantz and Lapid have not indicated they would be willing to meet all of the demands Odeh outlined. For instance, both of them have made commitments to “fix” the nation-state law, but avoided using language related to abrogating it.

Gantz also suggested last week that he would not engage the Arab-majority parties in his efforts to form a government.

“We are calling for a unity government,” Gantz said during a tour of a northern Israel, specifying he would like it to include members of the Likud party and anyone “who is sane and Zionist.”

Odeh, a Haifa native and a lawyer, is a longtime member of Hadash. A father of three, married to Nardine Asesli, a gynecologist, he was elected to the Haifa city council in the late 1990s and made his first foray into national politics in 2015 on the Joint List. This was a coalition of four Arab-majority factions, which has now split into two slates for the upcoming vote — Hadash-Ta’al and Balad-The United Arab List (UAL). (The Central Elections Commission disqualified Balad-UAL on Wednesday from running; the slate plans to appeal to the High Court of Justice to overturn the decision.)

MKs Ayman Odeh (center, left) and Ahmad Tibi react after submitting a joint list of candidates from their Hadash and Ta’al parties to the Central Elections Committee at the Knesset on February 21, 2019. (Hadash)

Odeh said he had pushed in vain for the Joint List to remain intact. “I deeply wanted to maintain the Joint List because I believed it was best for all of us to remain united,” he said. “Unfortunately after many discussions about preserving it, we were not able to do so.”

The Joint List won 13 seats in the 2015 elections, making it one of the largest parties in the opposition.

Odeh sidestepped the question of why the Joint List fell apart. Two weeks ago, Mtanes Shihadeh, a senior Balad politician, blamed the disintegration on disagreements over the distribution of seats.

Odeh also described Netanyahu’s campaign rhetoric, which has repeatedly spotlighted Arab-majority parties, as a strategic effort to delegitimize them.

“Netanyahu knows best the political weight of Arab citizens. He was the head of the opposition when Rabin in the 1990s relied on us to keep his government afloat. He also lost to Barak by a narrow margin in 1999, who many of us supported,” he said, referring to former prime minister Ehud Barak, who defeated Netanyahu in head-to-head prime minister elections in 1999 by eight percentage points. (That year, Israel held separate though simultaneous elections for Knesset and prime minister.)

“He knows that we can make the difference. So he ended his last election campaign inciting against us,” he said, recalling that Netanyahu infamously warned Jewish voters on election day in 2015 that Arabs were flocking to polling booths “in droves.”

“And now he has decided to begin this election campaign by inciting against us and attempting to delegitimize us,” Odeh charged.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of his Likud party’s election campaign in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019.(Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

For the past number of weeks, Netanyahu and his allies have repeatedly made the claim that Gantz plans to rely on the backing of Israel’s Arab-majority parties to form a government, insinuating that such a move should cause him to lose support.

Netanyahu has also campaigned against Gantz on the slogan “Bibi or Tibi,” suggesting that an Arab party participating in the government would not bode well for Israel.

Odeh pledged, if elected, to study the possibility of standing for the singing of Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, during the next Knesset’s swearing-in ceremony.

“When the time comes, I’ll look into the matter,” he said. But he stressed that “Hatikva does not represent me. It talks about a Jewish soul. While I have a soul, I don’t have a Jewish one. So I would prefer that we had a civilian anthem that embodied everyone here.”

Hatikva, a poem written by Ukranian-Jewish poet Naftali Herz Imber, refers to the “Jewish soul” and “yearning for Zion.”

At the Knesset swearing-in ceremony in 2015, Odeh, unlike most of the Joint List, remained in the main hall of the parliament and stood silently for the singing of Hatikva. “I did that to act in a statesman-like manner,” he said. “I also did not want to allow anyone to use that situation to delegitimize me.”

Odeh also noted that he does not on principle oppose Jewish self-determination.

“I believe that the Jews here are a people and every people including them has the right to self-determination. But that cannot come at the expense of our civil and national rights,” he said, adding that he believes in a two-state solution with the establishment of a Palestinian state along pre-1967 lines.

Polls conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research have consistently shown that Arab Israelis overwhelmingly support a two-state solution and a peace deal largely based on previously proposed parameters.

Asked about Israeli soldiers, Odeh struck a tone less hostile than that adopted by certain other Arab politicians.

“A soldier who is 18 is a victim of the occupation,” he said. “A Palestinian is the first victim, but a soldier is the second victim. It is true that you can find soldiers who kill minors and cause destruction, but it is also the case that the occupation uses them. The natural place where you should see soldiers is in the university and building their future, not occupying another people.”

A handful of Balad leaders, who define themselves as members of the Palestinian national movement, have made very critical comments of soldiers. For instance, outgoing Balad MK Hanin Zoabi equated the Israel Defense Forces with the Islamic State terror group. “Both are armies of murderers,” she said in a 2014 interview with Israeli TV.

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