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The Surprising Similarities Between an Israeli Arab Leader and a Kahanist Lawmaker

Ayman Odeh and Itamar Ben-Gvir may have gotten into a bust up, but they have more in common than they care to admit ■ Netanyahu and his acolytes have quietly courted the Joint List. Anything to humiliate Bennett

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Lawmaker Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi after a Knesset vote on the so-called Citizenship Law, in July.
Lawmaker Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi after a Knesset vote on the so-called Citizenship Law, in July.Credit: אוהד צויגנברג
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Why did Ayman Odeh go to Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate on Saturday and film himself making inflammatory, seditious, aggressive statements? Why did Itamar Ben-Gvir go to the scenes of the terror attacks in Bnei Brak, Hadera and Tel Aviv? They are each other’s mirror image, and each is his “colleague’s” the greatest political asset. The extremists on both sides always serve each other.

Perhaps Odeh, a member of Hadash, wanted to constrain his partner in the Joint List’s leadership, Ahmad Tibi of Ta’al, by creating a poisonous atmosphere that would make it hard for him to help the governing coalition in its time of trouble. And he certainly sought to gain more prominence than the Arab community’s man of the hour, the United Arab List’s Mansour Abbas, whose popularity is growing ahead of the likely election.

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But his choice of tone, timing and location position him at the extremist fringe of Arab politics – more so than the nationalist Ta’al or the Islamic Movement. Maybe even more so than Balad, but in any case certainly not very far from it. And this, regrettably, is someone whom many tried for years to see as a moderate who could be a bridge between Jews and Arabs.

After receiving a cold shower of condemnations, including from the Zionist left, Odeh rushed to the television studios Monday afternoon to try to explain himself. In a Hebrew-language interview, he rather clumsily denied some of his statements (“I didn’t call for throwing weapons in Israelis’ faces,” he lied).

But in an interview with an Arabic-language station, he urged the Druze (!), and not just Muslim and Christian Arabs serving in the security forces, to stop doing military service. Each side of his mouth was working hard.

In contrast, it was beautiful to see several Arab soldiers and police officers going on air to oppose him, bearing messages of peace and coexistence.

Odeh seemed panicked. At the height of his power as the Joint List’s chairman, he led a party with 15 lawmakers. Today, thanks to the judicious, statesmanlike Abbas – who once sheltered under his wings, but now overshadows him – he’ll have trouble keeping even his current six seats (of which only three belong to his Hadash party). He’s in a war of survival, and his weapons are separatism and extremism.

This is bad news for Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, who hoped, and perhaps still hope, that the Joint List or some of its component parties would be a weak reed for them to cling to in the Knesset. The coalition will face its biggest test when the Knesset returns from its spring break in four weeks minus one day.

MK Itamar Ben-Gvir confronts MK Ayman Odeh at Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot, Israel.

But it’s excellent news for Likud, which has spent the last 10 months wooing Odeh, Tibi and Sami Abu Shehadeh in hundreds of Knesset votes.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his colleagues in the opposition will now try to persuade people that the government has no right to do what they have done with glee. They had Arye Dery to run around the Knesset making deals with the Joint List; he was the middleman who dirtied his hands for them.

A brief reminder: Likud, the ultra-Orthodox parties and sometimes even Religious Zionism mobilized time after time to win votes on matters dear to the Joint List’s heart – building a hospital in Sakhnin, exempting Arab religious institutions from municipal taxes, creating a parliamentary committee of inquiry on the placement of Arab teachers in schools, and the crowning glory, defeating the citizenship/family unification law. Photos of Likud and Joint List members rejoicing together in the Knesset and almost dancing a dabke after that last law failed won’t quickly be forgotten.

Bennett, Lapid and the leaders of the other coalition parties mustn’t fall into Likud’s trap. Bringing the Joint List into the coalition was never an option. But securing its lawmakers’ help in Knesset votes is still acceptable today, and will be in the future. The 2023-24 budget can be passed easily. It’s enough for one Joint List lawmakers to skip the vote (assuming, of course, that the coalition’s 60 members of Knesset are actually rock-solid).

Bennett, Lapid, Avigdor Lieberman and Gideon Sa’ar shouldn’t be greater purists than Netanyahu, Bezalel Smotrich and Moshe Gafni. Gafni could teach them all what parliamentary cooperation means through his alliance with Tibi – one of the most fruitful in the Knesset since both men entered. Follow his lead.

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