Analysis

Israeli Arab Leader Made a Rare Overture. The Consequences Could Be Harmful

Ayman Odeh wanted to rouse the political arena and his voters, but his words may come careening back at him like a boomerang

Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh at the launch of the slate's campaign in Tel Aviv, August 20, 2019
David Bachar

When an Arab lawmaker makes headlines without being involved in a security issue or extreme nationalist declaration, it's an achievement. Ayman Odeh's statement Thursday, saying he is willing to join a center-left coalition, chalks up such an achievement.

Odeh, his close associates explain, wanted to rouse the political arena and his voters, who are far from involved or interested in next month's election.

Odeh and his advisers expected that his statement in Yedioth Ahronoth would throw a stone into the quiet election pool of Arab society, and the ensuing ripples would expand outwards and raise voter turnout. Odeh aimed to spark public debate that would serve the Joint List and the entire leftist camp. But he forgot, or ignored, a number of important points that would send his words careening back at him like a boomerang.

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Odeh did not consult his partners in the leadership of the Joint List, which had reunited less than a month ago. He failed to inform them at all about his declaration or its strategic ramifications. While the Joint List is a framework that allows its four partners to maintain relative independence, all the partners, even his own party, Hadash, have made clear that Odeh’s move was not coordinated with them. In the aftermath, they were busy with clarifications and objections.

Odeh’s statements dealt with a Jewish-Arab partnership in its broadest sense of expanding the democratic bloc. But Odeh also knows that Arab society and its representatives are more ready for this discourse than the Zionist parties – first and foremost Kahol Lavan, which purports to represent an alternative to lead the government.

In a normal country, in which the principle of equality is deeply rooted and internalized by all its citizens, Odeh’s statements would be cause to rejoice. But here, Likud was the one rejoicing and used his statements to goad Kahol Lavan.

All day long, the members of Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan rejected Odeh and everything he represents. They can be expected to reject "that Arab" and his friends up to the elections, while they shout "we're right-wing," in hopes of minimizing the damage to their efforts of forming a national-unity government with Netanyahu's Likud.

The Arab community listened very closely to Odeh’s remarks and understands that the debate stirred on Thursday morning is purely theoretical. The Joint List, or parts of it, can only dream of entering the coalition. Members of Hadash, Balad, Ta'al and the United Arab List all voiced words to that effect yesterday.

The responses from the Joint List made it clear to the public that Odeh sought to point out that the Israel of 2019 is still not ready for an Arab partner in the government. They cannot accept a platform that calls for an end to the occupation, a diplomatic agreement along the 1967 borders and a number of civil issues in Arab society.

In complete contrast to Odeh’s message, the elected officials of the Arab community effectively told their voters that there’s nothing to discuss. This point might have great weight in the eyes of the group that can’t decide whether to vote and for whom. That group consists of people who are indifferent and uninterested, and whose hopes fall on deaf ears in the Jewish majority.

In May, Odeh spoke at an opposition rally held by Kahol Lavan, only after criticism on the left over his exclusion from the list of speakers. Gantz personally phoned Odeh and invited him to speak. It was seen as an attempt at reconciliation after his original invitation was rescinded.

Rather than this step leading to a conceptual change, Gantz and his friends the generals, together with Yair Lapid, chose to revert Thursday to the same old messages.

If Odeh was imagining a big blow-up in the center-left camp, he may wake up to an explosion in the Joint List – and Arab society in general.