Top Arab MK says open to ‘joining’ Gantz

Ayman Odeh’s spokesman says the Joint List leader meant ‘cooperation’ only, won’t join Blue and White-led coalition

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Hadash-Ta'al chairman Ayman Odeh speaks at a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside the Tel Aviv Museum on May 25, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)
Hadash-Ta'al chairman Ayman Odeh speaks at a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside the Tel Aviv Museum on May 25, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

Israel’s top Arab lawmaker, Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh, said on Thursday that he might “seriously consider joining” with Blue and White chief Benny Gantz if he wins the election, but said the scenario was unlikely because of Gantz’s own reservations.

It was not immediately clear from Odeh’s comments if he meant his Joint List could enter a Gantz-led coalition — an idea his spokesman rejected in response to speculation.

Speaking to The Times of Israel Thursday, Odeh said, “I don’t think that Gantz is ready. He would prefer to form a national unity government [with Likud] over what we want. But if he turns to us and he is going in the right direction of peace and equality, we will listen. I don’t see it happening because of a lot of bad water under the bridge. We are not in his pocket. He will have to come to us.”

But, he added, “If we see that there is some common direction, we will seriously consider joining him.”

Odeh spoke at the Knesset as he and other leaders of his alliance of four Arab-majority parties formally registered their parliamentary slate ahead of the September 17 elections. Thursday was the final day for registering political parties that wish to run.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz speaks to reporters at the Knesset as his party submits its electoral slate to the Central Elections Committee on August 1, 2019. (Flash90)

After Odeh’s comments were reported as openness to serving in a Gantz-led coalition, his spokesman clarified them, insisting to The Times of Israel that the Joint List leaders had merely been referring to unspecified “cooperation with Blue and White” — not an alliance in government.

While Gantz has not officially ruled out including the Joint List in a future coalition, he has previously said he was only open to a coalition with Zionist parties, apparently excluding the Arab-majority factions.

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 sat in an Israeli coalition government, but have supported minority governments from the outside. 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.

The party split into two factions for the April 2019 race, and voters responded by reducing their combined showing to 10 seats.

Speaking to journalists at the Knesset Thursday, Odeh said his newly reunited slate would reverse that loss.

(L-R) Mtanes Shihadeh, 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)

“We are coming here stronger than before because we are united,” Odeh said. “We have learned the mistake of the last four months. We only have to look at the facts — when we ran together, we received 13 seats, when we ran separately, we had the lowest turnout ever. So what should we learn from that? That we need to unite. Now that we have united, the turnout will rise again.”

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.

The reunion was finalized when Balad, an Arab nationalist party, announced late Sunday that it would run on the unified slate already agreed to by Hadash, Ta’al and Ra’am, the three other Arab-majority factions, which announced a day earlier that they would run together.

Illustrative: An Arab Israeli woman casts her vote at a polling station in the coastal city of Haifa, on March 17, 2015. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

“We want to raise the turnout [in Arab communities] by at least 10%, but we need work hard to raise it to at least 65% so that Benjamin Netanyahu and his cronies are sent home. The more we get, the more influence we will have,” Odeh said.

Many analysts have pinned the lower turnout in April, estimated at 49.2% by the Israel Democracy Institute, down from some compared to some 63.5% in 2015, on the failure of the four Arab-majority parties to revive the Joint List.

The Central Elections Committee opened its doors on Wednesday for parties jostling for the Knesset’s 120 seats to register their rosters. Over 40 parties picked up registration forms.

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