'Arabs in Israel want peace, equality, pragmatic leadership'

Joint List leader hopes to transform Arab role in Israeli politics

With Arab Israeli voters increasingly supportive of a more active part in government, Ayman Odeh sees opportunity for real influence — but many obstacles remain

Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab Joint List, outside a court hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on right-wing petitions seeking to disqualify his party from running in the September elections, on August 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab Joint List, outside a court hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on right-wing petitions seeking to disqualify his party from running in the September elections, on August 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The leader of the main Arab faction in the Knesset has shaken up Israel’s election campaign by offering to sit in a moderate coalition government.

Ayman Odeh’s offer to back Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief opponent, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, for prime minister reflects the growing desire of Israel’s large Arab minority to take a more active role in shaping the country. It also challenges the longstanding norm that Arabs are out of bounds as political partners with the Jewish majority.

Odeh believes if he can generate excitement and boost Arab turnout, it could be enough to tip the scales in Israel’s fractured political landscape and finally topple Netanyahu, who has long incited against Arab political leaders and questioned their loyalty.

“The truth is we could be the real deciding factor in this election,” Odeh told The Associated Press this week. “Without us the right-wing government will not be replaced. We can’t do it alone, but without us it can’t be done.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Joint List leader MK Ayman Odeh at the opening session of the 20th Knesset, March 31, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Netanyahu forced the September 17 election after failing to put together a ruling majority after April elections. It is the first time Israel has held two elections in the same year and has many parties, including Odeh’s, scrambling to avoid repeating the mistakes of the April vote.

Whether the repeat election becomes a watershed moment for Israel’s Arabs depends largely on the response to Odeh’s historic call for inclusion.

Israeli Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of the country’s 9 million citizens, have largely been marginalized politically since the founding of the state in 1948.

The Jewish establishment, leery of including those it perceives as identifying with the country’s adversaries, has kept Arab-led parties out of government. At the same time, Arab leaders have said they had no interest in joining a government for fear of legitimizing Israel’s military control of Palestinian territories or being seen as condoning military operations against Palestinians.

But with a younger generation far more comfortable with a dual Israeli-Arab identity and demanding solutions to everyday domestic issues, the political calculus has changed.

Polls show an overwhelming majority of Arab citizens want their leaders to focus more on reducing crime, improving education and addressing a housing crunch rather than solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The message is we don’t just want you to get elected, we want you to influence,” said Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, a non-profit dedicated to promoting equality in Israel. “The Arabs haven’t stopped supporting the Palestinians, but they know that peace will take time. The other issues are more urgent.”

Members of the Hadash, Ta’al and Ra’am parties pose for photographs during a press conference in Nazareth announcing on the reconstitution of the Joint List electoral alliance, July 27, 2019. (Flash90)

Israel’s Arab citizens, in contrast to their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza, can vote in Israeli elections but say they’ve suffered from decades of discrimination and second-class status. This has often translated into apathy at the ballot box.

Angered by the passage of a controversial law that defined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and by Netanyahu campaign tactics they considered racist, many of Israel’s Arab minority sat out the April elections. Turnout fell to 49%, from 64% in the previous 2015 election.

The low turnout, as well as divisions between the various Arab parties, contributed to a poor showing. Arab parties won just 10 seats in the 120-seat parliament, down from 13 in 2015.

With the four main factions now reunited under Odeh’s leadership, polls project the Joint List becoming the third-largest party after the election.

A grassroots effort is trying to mobilize Arab voters and create optimism that they can tip the election. Odeh himself said if Arab turnout reaches 65%, Netanyahu will be unseated.

Odeh, who cited Martin Luther King. Jr. and Nelson Mandela as inspirations, said he also sees an increased openness among Jews to his appeal. A recent survey also showed that his outreach enjoyed widespread popularity with the Arab public. An Arab party has never sat in an Israeli government, though major Jewish parties have had high-ranking Arab members.

“I don’t want to wait until there is a change for me to start influencing. I want to be part of that process,” he said. “The Arabs in Israel want peace and equality. They want pragmatic and influential leadership to implement these principles.”

In this photo from August 29, 2019, Joint List pary leader Ayman Odeh distributes campaign material in Nazareth. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Plenty of obstacles still stand in his path.

Blue and White, fearful of alienating conservative Jewish voters, gave him a cool reception, saying it would sit only with Zionist parties. Other Arab lawmakers on Odeh’s list also expressed serious reservations, leading Odeh himself to apparently partly walk back the offer. In an interview with Channel 12 after internal party backlash, Odeh said he would only join a government intensely dedicated to ending control over the Palestinians.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu’s Likud party has accused Gantz, a former military chief, of secretly conspiring with the Arabs.

Reviving old tactics, Netanyahu has been seeking to galvanize his right-wing base by painting the Arab minority as disloyal and even treasonous. In 2015, he famously tried to mobilize supporters on election day by warning that Arab voters were heading “in droves” to the polls.

A hidden camera allegedly snuck into a polling station in an Arab town by a Likud observer during parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019. (Courtesy Hadash-Ta’al)

Likud also faced accusations of voter suppression by placing cameras near voting booths in Arab villages in April. The Central Election Committee, which is headed by a former Supreme Court judge, banned the practice this time around.

Despite its tepid preliminary response to Odeh, Blue and White seems to realize the potential of the Arab vote and has begun campaigning in Arab communities. Gantz has also included Odeh in opposition protests and made other gestures.

Still, if tapped to be the next prime minister, Gantz is expected to turn to other Jewish parties and perhaps even Likud to form a national unity government, making Arab inclusion a long shot.

Odeh says it is more likely that he will become the country’s next opposition leader, an official state position that would grant him an audience with visiting dignitaries, a state-funded bodyguard, monthly consultations with the prime minister and a platform to rebut his speeches in the Knesset.

Other Arab lawmakers have indicated they would refuse to serve as ministers as part of the government, but would welcome the opportunity to head powerful coalition-led parliamentary committees that oversee budgets crucial to their sector’s interests.

Regardless of the election results, Arab political attitudes have changed, said political activist Afif Abu Much, a computer engineer.

“Today’s Arabs want to be an integral, legitimate part of Israeli politics,” he said.

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