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A Note from Michal Sella: Ayman Odeh’s Groundbreaking Idea — Don’t Ignore Arab Citizens
Analysis from Michal Sella, Director of the Shatil Center for Policy Change
In any objective reading of Israel’s political map, it is clear that a government of the left-liberal and ‘democratic center’ cannot stand alone – that is, without the support of the Arab-majority parties and the broader Arab voting public.
Arab Israelis constitute twenty percent of the country’s population. It should be simple math: ignoring Arabs — as voters and as political partners – is electoral suicide. It would be equivalent to the Democratic party ignoring the African American, Asian American or Latino voters in the U.S. But ignoring the political potential of Israel’s Arab voters and parties has been something close to an axiom of Israel’s politics since its founding. No Israeli governing coalition has ever included an Arab political party.
That is why the most significant political event these last two sleepy, scorching weeks of August in Israel was Ayman Odeh’s groundbreaking declaration which sent shockwaves throughout Israel’s political system. In an interview with the country’s largest newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, Odeh, the chairman of the Joint List, the renewed four-party conglomerate that mostly represents Arab voters, announced that he would be willing to join a center-left government (one presumably led by Kachol Lavan co-chairman Benny Gantz) if it were to meet some basic conditions.
These conditions would strike most observers in Western democracies as fair and rather obvious demands. He talked about fairness in planning and construction. (Palestinian citizens of Israel face structural discrimination in matters of land and planning rights). Odeh demanded greater equity in healthcare for Arab Israelis and greater attention to the crime and gun violence epidemic that disproportionately affects Arab communities in Israel.
Perhaps most centrally, Odeh conditioned his participation on the government’s commitment to abolish (not reform) the Nation-State Law – a quasi-Constitutional “Basic Law” passed by the last Netanyahu government that legislated the second-class status of non-Jewish citizens of Israel. Finally, Odeh asked that Israel’s next government promise to resume negotiations with the Palestinian Authority to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and fulfill Palestinian national aspirations for self-determination) by establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel. (Palestinian citizens of Israel are among the most reliable constituency supporting peace through diplomacy.)
Odeh has done something no Arab party or leader had yet done. He conveyed willingness to join a center-left Zionist government on the condition that it honor the complete equality of Arab citizens of Israel and ensure their status as such with equal rights. Odeh is asking for nothing more than equality — a basic expectation of citizens of any democracy. In American terms, he is asking for the type of equality guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment — equal protection under the law.
Odeh’s announcement lit a fire under the political system. Parties from across the political spectrum attacked Odeh and his idea of Jewish-Arab political partnership. The outrage! Imagine! A party that represents roughly one fifth of Israeli citizens wants access to the basic promise of a democracy, the right to be a part of a representative government.
Unsurprisingly, the Likud used Odeh’s declaration as political ammunition against its main rival, Kachol Lavan (Blue and White) They did the same thing in last April’s election accusing Gantz and Lapid of ‘joining the Arabs’ — claiming that their alleged association with Arab parties ‘exposed’ their real, leftist face. Avigdor Lieberman, who once swapped his Knesset seat in order to avoid sitting next to the Arab lawmaker, made a wilder claim: that Odeh was cooperating with Netanyahu to tarnish the name of Kachol Lavan (by providing a basis to the defamatory campaign of Likud against Kachol Lavan alleging an association with Arab parties).
But Kachol Lavan shook off Odeh’s taboo-shattering statement and imposed a condition of their own: Blue and White officials rebuffed Odeh, saying the party would never sit in a government with Arab parties that do not recognize Israel as a “Jewish State.” Gantz apparently was referring to the inclusion of Balad, an anti-Zionist nationalist party, within the ranks of the Joint List, telling Channel 12 News that “there are parts within the Arab parties that clash with [this condition].” However, while not accepting the idea full cloth, Gantz publicly responded to some of Odeh’s core demands. As chairman of Blue and White, he said he would appoint an Arab minister in his government, though he fell short of endorsing the idea of actual cooperation with the Joint List.
It was not only Jewish parties that rejected the idea of a Jewish-Arab political partnership. Voices from within Odeh’s own list distanced themselves from it. Both MK Matans Shahadeh, Balad’s chairman, and Ahmad Tibi, Ta’al’s chairman, disavowed Odeh’s comments. Only the Labor Party, led by Amir Peretz and the Democratic Camp (the new party made up of Meretz, Ehud Barak’s and former Labor MK Stav Shafir and led by Nitzan Horowitz) supported the partnership.
Both the Jewish and Arab right have contributed to ensuring that political cooperation remains a taboo. But the Jewish right has mobilized a powerful sense of fear to make any Arab-Jewish cooperation appear as a type of betrayal. Even former generals and IDF chiefs of staff have not dared challenge this racist axiom. It is in this context that Ayman Odeh’s statement must be considered.
In trying to break a taboo at the heart of Israel’s political culture, Odeh faces an uphill battle. He is seeking a revolutionary shift in Israeli politics – and in doing so, faces opposition on all sides. Still, his opposition can’t change two things: mathematics and history.
The math is quite simple. There is no majority coalition that leads to 61 Knesset seats for the center-left government without Arab votes. Odeh is right when he says, “Without us, no one can do it.” And from the perspective of Arab voters, Odeh makes a compelling case that if the choice is between supporting a center-left government from the outside or from inside the government, they might as well exercise political power to achieve real policy achievements for the sector they represent. “I want to move Arab politics from politics of protest to politics of influence,” he says.
Historically, Jewish-Arab political cooperation has been at the center of the most significant political achievement ever made by the center-left in Israel. The Oslo Accords would not have been signed without the Arab parties voting from outside the coalition in support of Yitzhak Rabin’s government. There is a precedent for Jewish-Arab political cooperation that emerges out of common interests.
If those seeking to replace the right-wing populist government of Benjamin Netanyahu with a democratic alternative are serious, they must realize it can only happen with the cooperation of all Israelis who support democracy, equality, and the rule of law. This means Jews and Arabs working together.
The Run-Down: Shifts and Splits in Party Politics
Just three weeks out from the election, here is what you need to know about parties contending for the 22nd Knesset.
- BLUE AND WHITE: Kachol Lavan (Blue and White), a slate largely comprised of former IDF generals, was launched ahead of the last election by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid. Polling as the most viable alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. Blue and White attained 30 seats in the last round of elections. Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition and was denied the chance to form a government. The Knesset voted instead to dissolve itself and head to new elections, following Avigdor Lieberman’s refusal to join Netanyahu’s coalition with ultra-Orthodox parties. Kachol Lavan maintained its preference for a national unity government with the Likud, announcing a voter surplus agreement (which allows parties to combine their ‘surplus votes’ — a mechanism which can allow a small party greater certainty of clearing the electoral threshold or add an additional Knesset seats) with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party. The move indicates Kachol Lavan is placing itself further to the right — by aligning with Lieberman — rather than with the broader center-left bloc.
- YISRAEL BEITEINU: Avigdor Lieberman, chairman of his Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) Party, has maintained his standing in the polls, bolstered by the perception that he prevented the formation of the last Netanyahu-led government — and will be the linchpin in the formation of the next government. He is campaigning on strong opposition to the ultra-Orthodox agenda. His party entered a surplus agreement with Kachol Lavan, which as a solidly right-wing party, has further blurred the distinction between right and left in these elections. He is positioning himself to either recommend Gantz as prime minister or to force Netanyahu into a unity government.
ON THE LEFT
- DEMOCRATIC CAMP: The Democratic Camp, the new party comprised of Meretz, Stav Shaffir, a high ranking former Labor leader, and Ehud Barak’s new party Democratic Israel, is headed by Meretz Party leader Nitzan Horowitz. This week, they signed a voter surplus agreement with the Labor-Gesher party.
- JOINT ARAB LIST: The four Arab-majority political parties are running with a united front under the leadership of Ayman Odeh. The Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh broke new ground by announcing his willingness to sit in a center-left governing coalition if it met certain conditions critical to Arab communities in Israel. The High Court of Justice rejected a petition by the Likud and Otzma Yehudit parties to the Central Election Committee to disqualify the Joint List.
- LABOR-GESHER: The Labor Party under the leadership of Amir Peretz merged with the Gesher Party of MK Orly Levy-Abekasis. The new list is called Labor-Gesher.
ON THE RIGHT
- YAMINA: The Union of Right Wing Parties, led by Rabbi Rafi Peretz (Jewish Home) and Bezalel Smotrich (National Union), merged with Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s short-lived New Right Party. The new party that emerged, briefly called The United Right Party, was quickly renamed Yamina. It will be headed by former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, and will be consituted by the New Right and the Jewish Home and National Union factions that comprised the Union of Right Wing Parties. The Likud and Yamina announced last week that they had signed a voter surplus agreement.
- SHAS AND UTJ: As they have done in the past, the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, are running separately and are expected to maintain their power electorally. Shas has said it intends to sign a voter surplus agreement with UTJ.
- LIKUD: The Likud has effectively made the case against smaller right-wing parties in order to prevent the loss of right-wing votes to parties that will not cross the electoral threshold. Concerned over ‘wasted’ right-wing votes, Likud agreed to give Moshe Feiglin, the leader of Zehut, a small far-right party unlikely to clear the electoral threshold, a position as a minister in a prospective Likud government in exchange for him dropping out of the race early.
- OTZMA YEHUDIT: The Israeli Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the Central Election Commission to bar senior members of the ultra-nationalist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) from running in the Knesset election. The party’s leaders are disciples of Meir Kahane who led the Kahana Hai Party – an extremist group designated by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.
The Court barred Baruch Marzel (second on the party list) and Bentzi Gopstein (fifth), followers of the American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, on the basis of a track record of anti-Arab racism. The petition against Marzel and Gopstein was filed by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), as well as representatives from opposition parties Kahol Lavan, Labor and the Democratic Camp. Unlike in the previous 2019 elections, they run independently rather than part of a broader right-wing union. Otzma Yehudit is not expected to clear the electoral threshold.