Israeli Arab Party Leader Signals Historic Shift – and Brews a Political Storm

Ayman Odeh says he's willing to sit in center-left coalition, demands establishing Palestinian state, ending occupation - but other leaders in his party say they were not consulted on this deal, and Kahol Lavan were quick to rebuff

Aymen Odeh at a conference in Tel Aviv, May 31, 2019.
\ Ilan Assayag

Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh is prepared to recommend that Kahol Lavan's Benny Gantz form a government, and that the united slate of Arab parties would be willing to join a center-left coalition, he told Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper Thursday morning.

The comments drew ire from across the political specturm, ranging from Odeh's own allies in the Joint List to members of Kahol Lavan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud.

In the interview, Odeh formulated a list of demands with regard to the Arab public and the political process. If Kahol Lavan accepts these terms, it would prepare the grounds for the Arab party to join the government, for the first time in Israeli history.

Odeh's terms for joining are centered around four issues: Urban planning and building, violence, welfare and policy. He is requesting, among other things, freezing private home demolitions in the West Bank, repealing a law that dispenses harsher punishments for building infractions and the construction of a new Arab city.

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The report also says that he is requesting the repeal of the Nation-State Law and the renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians. In a post Odeh published to Facebook on Thursday morning, he said that an additional requirement for joining the coalition would be ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Other demands Odeh put forward in the article are operations to fight organized crime, building a public hospital in an Arab city, raising pensions and adding a budget for battered women's shelters. "We will be partners in the government only if Arab citizens will no longer be second-class citizens," he said.

Arab-majority parties have traditionally refused to join any Israeli government, while most Jewish party leaders have ruled out joining forces with them in a governing coalition.

Some Israeli Arabs are represented in Jewish-majority parties. Likud's Ayoub Kara, a Druze politician, served until late June as Israel's communications minister.

Joint List partners perturbed

The Yedioth Ahronot article states that Odeh, who heads the Hadash party, made his statements without conferring with the heads of the other parties that make up the Joint List – Balad, United Arab List and Ta'al. He acknowledged that the chances that his demands will be met after the election are slim.

Balad Chairman Mtanes Shehadeh, who holds the second seat on the Joint List slate, released a statement saying that Odeh's declaration represents his personal stance, and that Shehadeh aggressively rejects it. Odeh does not represent the Joint List, "And in my opinion, doesn't even represent Hadash. I recommend that Ayman does not chase the dream to placate the Israeli left and will take back his decision."   

Balad MK Jamal Zahalka echoed Shehadeh's sentiments in a tweet, saying that Odeh's statements oppose the positions of the Joint List and of Balad. "This is a dangerous exercise in public relations, and legitimizes the Party of Generals" - a term for Kahol Lavan - "who have committed war crimes and boasted about them." 

Representatives of the United Arab List and Ta'al noted that they will convene Thursday or Friday to draw up their official position on Odeh's demands. Joint List members are asking for clarifications regarding Odeh's Thursday morning Facebook post.

Ta'al Chairman Ahmad Tibi released a statement of support for Odeh's position: "We aspire to as much influence as possible by means of an obstructive bloc, if [Kahol Lavan] comes to us. We will hear the demands of the Arab public on economic, social, policy and national issues."   

He added that joining a coalition at this time would be "a utopia that does not exist, and is not on the agenda in the shadow of the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kahol Lavan and Gantz are not our cup of tea; they are far from our demands and are even aspiring towards a unity government with Likud."

Ta'al's statement included a list of demands of their own, including improvements to the healthcare and education system in Arab society, a 64 billion shekel economic plan, building a university and hospital in Arab areas and repealing the Nation-State Law. 

Tibi added, though, that Ta'al spoke to Odeh and he said that his position will be implemented "only after the end of the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state."

Kahol Lavan refuses 

Yair Lapid, number two on the Kahol Lavan slate, told Kan Bet public radio that Odeh cannot tell journalists that he will join the government while simultaneously sitting alongside the Balad party, "which is a group of Israel haters who do not recognize the Jewish State." He added that "this doublespeak will not be accepted by any of us."

Lapid said that the government needs to address the Arab citizens' issues. "They have real problems that haven't been dealt with for years, because, among other reasons, they have awful political representation. Ayman Odeh should take a look at his own house and see who he's let in before he tries to run coalition negotiations."

Labor-Gesher Chairman Amir Peretz did not rule out the partnership. "If the Joint List takes it upon themselves to enter a partnership with a Zionist government, there is no reason to reject them. It means the Joint List has changed," he said in a statement.

"We need to see in this an important process that is liable to change the worldview of the Arabs in Israel and their sense of belonging in Israeli society, something that may calm tensions between the Arab population and Jews in Israel," Peretz said.

Despite this, he added, "I have a hard time believing that this process will take place, due to the presence of Balad on the slate."  

Kahol Lavan MK Yoaz Hendel said that the party would not sit with Arab parties in a tweet Thursday. "We respect the Arab citizens of Israel and see in them citizens who deserve every right, but we will not sit with Arab parties who at their core denounce the existence of Israel as a Jewish State. Period."

Democratic Union candidate Yaya Fink supported Tibi's overtures, tweeting that "Zionism is, among other things, supporting a government that is not made up of Jews alone. Thus said the known leftist Ze'ev Jabotinski when there was still an ideological right wing here: 'A Jew as prime minister, there should be an Arab deputy prime minister.'" He added, "a recommendation for the frightened Kahol Lavan party, in any event they're going to accuse you of leftism, be brave, say yes to a government with Arabs."

A Likud statement said that "Now it is as clear as ever: Benny Gantz will establish a left-wing government with Aymen Odeh and the Arab parties. Whoever wants a right-wing government must vote only for Likud."

Public Security Minister and Likud MK Gilad Erdan said in a tweet that "It is now clear that if you vote for Kahol Lavan, it looks like you'll get a leftist government that supports terror. And Ayman Odeh also clarified the price that Israel will pay: wanton illegal building, cancelling the Nation-State Law, more battered women's homes in the [Arab] sector (because why talk about culture and education?)."

Hendel responded to Erdan's remarks, saying that his government is "shirking responsibility" and responsible for the lack of governance in the heavily-Arab south and Galilee. "We need to integrate Israeli Arabs' rights and obligations. That's the responsibility of the State of Israel. To support Israelization." He added, "To my dismay, the Arab list represents a nationalism that opposes Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. We will not sit with them. We will form a national unity government without cults of personality."   

In an interview with the Haaretz podcast in June, Odeh said that he would cooperate with Gantz if the Joint List were to tip the scales of the coalition. "If there's a chance that he comes to us and we talk about a political plan, we intend to influence things. In the event that he can, and we're the deciding factor, and he'll sit with us and deploy our socio-political plan, then I guess we need to behave wisely and have an influence," he said.