Shortly after the exit poll results were released on Tuesday night, talk began of Ayman Odeh heading the opposition in the next Knesset. Then the whispers started: Odeh with Shin Bet security service bodyguards? Odeh in an official state car, an armored one even? Odeh in official meetings with foreign heads of state?
You must be joking.
Even worse: Odeh provided with sensitive intelligence from defense briefings. Israel’s next existential crisis. But commentators did not take long to put us at ease: There are ways to get around the law, they said, the Knesset can choose a different opposition leader, he doesn’t need to hear everything, the Shin Bet will find a way, no need to worry, have faith in Israeli democracy.
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The votes were still being counted in the only democracy in the Middle East, and racism and ultranationalism already reared their ugly heads. No, of course, not the vulgar racism of Benzi Gopstein and Michael Ben Ari, who actually took a severe blow in the election, and not that of Benjamin Netanyahu, who stirs up anti-Arab fear. No, this is the hidden kind, which goes down easy, dressed in excuses about security, and is immeasurably more dangerous because it’s nicer and more commonplace. Barely an eyebrow will be raised.
Political correctness in Israel permits treating all Arabs like a suspicious object, even the head of the Knesset’s third-largest party. It’s chilling to think just how politically correct this discussion is: Odeh was portrayed from the start as a traitor, who cannot be trusted with state secrets because it’s obvious he’ll betray his country and pass them on to the enemy. This line of talk lacks all legitimacy, yet it is not only the remit of seasoned Arab-haters. Serious people bring it up for serious debate.
That’s the illusion of Israeli elections: They create the false impression that the state’s Palestinian citizens are part of the game. It’s the same with the Israeli propagandist's hollow response to the accusation of apartheid: We have Arab legislators, in contrast to the blacks in apartheid South Africa, ergo we don’t have apartheid. But when the Arabs succeed and they become the third-largest faction in the Knesset, as they did (again) in this election, then the masks come off, and the game is over.
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Their representatives can chair the decorating committee, submit parliamentary questions and even represent the Knesset in parliamentary delegations, but they cannot be privy to state secrets because the state, after all, is not truly their state.
The subtext of this discussion is despicable. If Odeh cannot head the opposition, then wouldn't it be better to bar Arabs from serving in the Knesset altogether? If they will always be suspected of treason, then they don’t belong in the legislature. What will we do then with our show of egalitarian democracy?
Thin is the cloak of democracy, and its fragility became painfully obvious as soon as the polls closed. As it turns out, the opposition leader must in effect belong to the coalition: the coalition, that is, of accepted convention, of Zionism, of the Jews. Otherwise he has no place in this undemocratic democracy. First, we reject the possibility of the Arab parties joining the governing coalition a priori, now they’re not even fit for the opposition.
Israel wants only good Arabs in the Knesset, if at all, and it wants an opposition-free opposition, one that isn’t bothersome, that doesn’t resist, that is not different – her majesty’s opposition. Behind all this hides the national identity of Odeh and his colleagues in the Joint List. Israel isn’t ready to see a Palestinian Israeli in a senior official position. The security excuse is groundless, of course. Odeh and his colleagues are much more loyal to Israel than it is to them; anyone who has been elected in accordance with the law has the right to know everything.
A unity government is bad news, but every cloud has a silver lining: It could challenge Israel. Let’s welcome opposition chairman Ayman Odeh. He will speak immediately after the prime minister at every important debate in the Knesset. He will have a security detail, he’ll be driven in an official state car — and let Israeli Jews explode with anger.