Israeli Arab Leader Doesn't Rule Out Supporting Labor, Despite Exclusionary Remarks

MK Ayman Odeh responds to remarks by Labor leader Avi Gabbay who said Arab parties wouldn't be part of his government

MK Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, Israel's only Arab-majority political party, July 2017.

Israeli Arab leader Ayman Odeh on Saturday accused Labor of failing to present an alternative to the right-wing, but said he doesn't rule out supporting the party from the opposition if it means replacing the "far-right government" of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The head of the Joint List, which consists of three mainly-Arab parties, was responding to remarks by Labor leader Avi Gabbay, who said he wouldn't be part of a governing coalition alongside the List.

“Someone who doesn’t view Arab citizens and their elected representatives as a legitimate group, doesn’t present a real alternative to the right,” he said. “Since the days of Ehud Barak, the Labor Party has strived to be a pale replica of the right – and the voters always choose the original. To be drawn into the delegitimization campaign led by the prime minister against Arab citizens is a huge gift to the far-right coalition headed by Netanyahu and the settlers.”

Nevertheless, Odeh told Haaretz he isn’t slamming the door on Gabbay and would consider supporting a Labor-led coalition from the outside.  

“I am committed to doing everything I can to bring about the end of the occupation and advance full equality for Arab citizens, as well as to promote democracy The first stage of achieving these goals is to bring down the right-wing government,” said Odeh. “So I don’t intend to sit on the sidelines and let a Netanyahu-Bennett coalition continue to lead us on the road to annexation, apartheid, discrimination and incitement.” 

Odeh recalled the government led by Yitzhak Rabin in the '90s, recalling that the Arab parties were not part of that coalition but supported it as a voting bloc.  

“This was the most successful parliamentary time for the representatives of the Arab public. That is an option that exists as long as we know clearly that the government is committed to peace and equality.”

While Odeh said that following the next election there is “no scenario in which we would recommend Netanyahu or [Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali] Bennett as prime minister, neither are we committed ahead of time to anyone, including Abi Gabbay. It’s clear to us what goals we want to advance and we’ll recommend only someone who will advance those goals. 

“Our approach is not all or nothing,” continued Odeh. “Together with a determined fight against the occupation and discrimination, we’re also working tirelessly even in the shadow of Netanyahu’s extreme government, to already bring improvement into the daily lives of Arab citizens. 

We’ve had an important success in advancing plan 922,” Odeh said, referring to a five-year economic development plan for the Arab community. "Supporting a left-wing, Zionist government must also involve clear agreement over the steps it will take toward a historic compromise and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, together with significant steps to promote equality and close economic and social gaps, and opposition to the political oppression of the Arab population.”

Odeh asserted that unless Labor "changes direction and offers the citizens a real alternative to right-wing government, they won’t be able to return to power."

Labor's Gabbay said on Saturday that he would not be part of a governing coalition alongside the Joint List. 

"We will not share a government with the Joint List, period," Gabbay said at a political forum in Be'er Sheva. "Let that be clear."

"You see their behavior," he continued. "I don't see any [connection] between us that would allow us to be part of a government with them."

MK Zouheir Bahloul, an Arab member of Labor, said he "regrets" his party leader's remarks. Bahloul said his party is all about coexistence between Jews and Arabs, "and such remarks aren't in line with this value."

"The Joint List represents the Arab population, despite all its internal problems, and such remarks could have far-reaching implications," he said. "To replace the right-wing government, there has to be cooperation and trust between the center-left and the Arab public, which makes up 20 percent of the Israeli population."

Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman urged Gabbay to realize "that real change won't happen without recognition of the Arab population and its rights, and without brave opposition to the occupation and the settlement enterprise."