Labor's Peretz hails Odeh's 'step forward'

Blue and White MKs rule out center-left coalition with Arab lawmakers

Arab MKs seethe over Ayman Odeh’s apparent change of long-held stance; Likud, other right-wing parties bash Gantz and Lapid over prospect of Jewish-Arab alliance

(L-R) Mtanes Shehadeh, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas, heads of the four Arab-majority parties that form the Joint List, registering their alliance at the Central Elections Committee at the Knesset on August 1, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)
(L-R) Mtanes Shehadeh, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas, heads of the four Arab-majority parties that form the Joint List, registering their alliance at the Central Elections Committee at the Knesset on August 1, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh’s increased openness to joining a center-left coalition drew reactions from across the political spectrum on Thursday, with other Arab political leaders as well as the centrist Blue and White party rejecting the prospect outright.

Right-wing leaders were quick to criticize Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid over the proposed cooperation, as well as lambasting the Joint List — an alliance of the Hadash, Ra’am, Ta’al and Balad parties — as “foreign Palestinian agents” in the Knesset.

Israel’s top Arab lawmaker made the comments in an interview snippet published Thursday, confirming remarks he made to The Times of Israel earlier this month, when he was asked whether he would join a coalition led by Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz. Odeh answered at the time that “if we see that there is some common direction, we will seriously consider joining him,” but a spokesperson quickly walked back that remark.

The Yedioth Ahronoth daily published a preview of an interview with Odeh that will be published in full on Friday, leading with a quote of him saying he was “willing to join a center-left government.” However, he laid out several conditions for joining such a coalition, including “ending the occupation,” rolling back the controversial Jewish nation-state law, halting home demolitions in the West Bank and boosting the fight on crime in Arab communities.

The chances of that scenario materializing seemed extremely slim, as almost all political parties lined up to reject it.

Gantz has not commented on Odeh’s statement, but Lapid and fellow Blue and White lawmakers Gabi Ashkenazi and Yoaz Hendel ruled out the possibility of a future government partnership on Thursday.

Lapid pointed out that Odeh’s Hadash had teamed up in the elections with Balad, a Palestinian nationalist party.

Blue and White co-chairman Yair Lapid delivers a statement to the media at the Knesset, May 13, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“Ayman Odeh can’t say ‘we will sit with them in the government’ and then join forces with Balad, which is a gang of Israel-haters who don’t recognize the Jewish state,” he told the Kan public broadcaster. “This is doublespeak that is not acceptable to any of us.”

Ashkenazi told Army Radio: “We think Israel’s Arab citizens are equal and that’s how we should treat them,” but added that “we won’t be able to sit [in a government] with the Arab parties that don’t recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people.”

Blue and White MK Hendel said his party would “form a wide unity government” that includes Likud. “We respect Israel’s Arab citizens and view them as citizens worthy of all rights, but we will not sit with the Arab parties which fundamentally reject Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. Period.”

On the other side of the political divide, Odeh was met with vociferous opposition from his own camp.

Balad leader Mtanes Shihadeh rejected Odeh’s comment, saying on Twitter: “The change we want and that the Joint List should strive for is full civil equality in a bi-national state, not sitting in the coalition with some party that time after time treats Arab citizens as second class citizens.

“Balad’s stance on the matter is clear: We will not join a coalition with generals, racists and war criminals.”

Ta’al, headed by Ahmad Tibi, said the Joint List should “strive for influence over decision-making” via cooperation with other parties to block the formation of a right-wing government, in exchange for the acceptance of some of their demands, “but entering the government is not on the table for the Joint List.”

“Gantz is going for a unity government with Likud, and we will be a fierce opposition to such a government, while looking to increase our influence,” said Tibi.

‘A green light for a terror affairs minister in the Israeli government’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right), Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (center) and Intelligence and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (left) during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem in 2016, file photo (Amit Shabi/POOL/Flash90)

Though nearly all the parties involved balked at the proposal, it was immediately picked up by Likud to attack Blue and White.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan of the ruling Likud party tweeted that “now it is clear that whoever votes Blue and White will likely get a left-wing government with a terror supporter.”

He criticized Odeh’s demands, saying they would lead to “rampant illegal construction” and said he had unfairly laid the blame for the high crime rates in the Arab community at the door of police and the government. He also attacked the demand for funds for women’s shelters, saying that “to educate and talk against violence” takes precedence.

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev said the remark was the harbinger of a bi-national state, spelling “the end of the Jewish democratic state.”

“The Lapid-Gantz government featuring [Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor] Liberman would be responsible for an extreme left government the likes of which we have never seen here before,” she said in a statement.

In an official statement, Likud said: “Now it is clearer than ever: Benny Gantz will form a left-wing government with Ayman Odeh and the Arab parties.”

A centerpiece of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign against Gantz, his main challenger for the premiership, both before the April election and in the run-up to September’s vote, has been his allegation that the Blue and White chairman will be unable to build a ruling coalition without the backing of Arab parties. Arab parties have never served in an Israeli coalition government, but have supported minority governments from the outside.

The religious right-wing party Yamina went further in criticizing the suggestion, saying in a statement that “Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi will soon transform from Palestinian Authority agents in the Israeli Knesset into [PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas’s] foreign agents in the Israeli government.”

Yamina argued that after Joint List members had for years “dug a terror tunnel into the Knesset” and cooperated with Palestinian terrorists, the current move was “a green light for a terror affairs minister in the Israeli government.”

Yisrael Beytenu party leader MK Avigdor Liberman speaks at a faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on June 24, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, who in the past waged several strong campaigns against the Arab parties and in recent months has become Netanyahu’s political arch-foe after refusing to join his government, claimed Odeh’s remark was part of a “dangerous” cooperation between the Joint List and Likud. That was a reference to several Likud figures urging cooperation with Arab Israelis a few months ago.

“Yisrael Beytenu won’t agree to any sort of cooperation with Ayman Odeh and the Joint List,” Liberman said on Facebook. “Ayman Odeh, who time after time stands by Hamas, Hezbollah and all of Israel’s enemies, belongs in the parliament in Ramallah rather than in the Knesset.”

Democratic Camp, Labor back Jewish-Arab cooperation

Left-wing parties, meanwhile, welcomed Odeh’s statement.

“There won’t be a future here without a Jewish-Arab partnership. That’s why Odeh’s words are important and hopefully the other parts of the Joint List will join him,” Democratic Camp chairman Nitzan Horowitz said on Twitter.

Horowitz slammed Blue and White for dismissing the prospect of a coalition with the Arab parties, referring to a 2013 remark by its current No. 2 Yair Lapid (who then headed the Yesh Atid party) rejecting political cooperation with “Zoabis.” That was criticized at the time as an offensive reference to firebrand MK Hanin Zoabi of the Balad party, who has since quit politics, as representative of all Arab Israelis.

Meretz party leader Nitzan Horowitz.(Flash90)

“Such lameness by Blue and White, which goes after the ‘Zoabis’ and counts fatalities in Gaza, hasn’t learned a thing and immediately rejects the option. That is cowardice,” Horowitz tweeted.

He was also referring to a campaign spot by Gantz ahead of the April elections boasting that as IDF chief of staff he had overseen the killing of more than 1,300 Gazan terrorists in the 2014 war, though even the military put the number at around 1,000.

The other party to welcome Odeh’s announcement was Labor-Gesher, whose chairman Amir Peretz told Army Radio: “If the Arab parties really agree to take part in a Zionist government that is a step forward for us.” He slammed Blue and White’s rejection as “irresponsible.”

The Joint List was formed ahead of the March 2015 national elections, after the Knesset raised the electoral threshold, increasing the percentage of the vote a party must win to enter parliament from 2% to 3.25%. The slate brings together parties from across multiple ideological divides, including socialists, nationalists, secularists and Islamists.

In recent years, Arab-majority parties have grown in size, reaching a peak of over 10 percent of votes cast in the 2015 election, when the Joint List won 13 seats, becoming the second-largest opposition party. The party split into two factions for the April 2019 race, and voters responded by reducing their combined showing to 10 seats.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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