Opinion

Israeli Arabs Want In, Center-left Says No

The Joint List's Mansour Abbas, Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi launch their campaign in Nazareth, July 27, 2019.
Rami Shllush

In a week that featured the horrific specter of the ruling party advocating for the disqualification of Arab political representation in the Knesset, the chairman of the Joint List, MK Ayman Odeh, did the most fitting, justified, wise thing: He declared he would be willing to join a center-left coalition.

That is what should happen. Against the racism, against cowardice, against oppositional radicalism that improves nothing except the self-image of those who hold to it. Arab ministers in the government of Israel. That should be the norm. What a pity that Odeh’s potential partners insist on continuing to dance to the tune of stupidity. Kahol Lavan MK Yoaz Hendel announced immediately: “We won’t sit with the Arab parties that basically deny the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.” His party colleague MK Yair Lapid said: “Let Ayman Odeh first look at his own house and see who he’s bringing in before he starts conducting coalition negotiations."

They were both referring, directly and indirectly, to Balad, on the extreme end of the Joint List, which is burdened with communists and Islamists, feminists and conservatives, pragmatists and hawks. But Balad’s part in the Joint List, by even a generous assessment, is two or three Knesset seats. Kahol Lavan is lining up with Likud and Kahanism: all the Arabs are the same, they should all be out.

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It’s hard to understand these reactions. Not only are they invalid because of racism and cowardice, they are also illogical politically. With Likud being swept into stark Kahanism as it openly cooperates with the bottom of the right-wing barrel, Kahol Lavan, which identified the Arab community’s great thirst for inclusion during the first round of the election, should have leapt on it.

This is nothing new. When one-time Shin Bet chief Jacob Perry was a senior member of Yesh Atid, he worked to get votes in the Arab community but hit the brick wall of Lapid’s racism. Attempts to establish an Arab satellite party whose preoccupation with its Palestinian identity would take a back seat to its motivation to integrate into Israeli society have been underway for years now, and have been carried out by various parties across the political spectrum. Once again, not for the sake of heaven, but out of the realization that a good part of the Arab public wants political representation that is part of the Israeli leadership, and that the center-left bloc has nowhere from which to mine new votes except the Arabs. And now we have the leader of the largest Arab political framework extending a hand. Why has it been left hanging?

But it’s not only the good-for-nothings from the center-left who are to blame. Balad chairman MK Mtanes Shehadeh, who was taken by surprise at Odeh’s statement, was also quick to disavow it. While Balad has taken upon itself the radical ideological role of turning Israel into the state of all its citizens, the feasibility of its vision, at least in the short term, is about as solid as one’s chance of winning the lottery. Quite paradoxically, the ones who can make this vision a reality are from the annexationist right wing, which, like Balad, has only a few Knesset seats. Why are the representatives of the moderate and pragmatic majority constantly treating these people as if they carried any weight?

Quite a few Arabs I talk with show indifference to the upcoming election and don’t plan to vote, like in the April election. One can understand the despair over the institutionalized racism in Israeli society, but it is still greatly mistaken. To improve the conditions of Arab citizens, the Arabs should head in droves to the polling stations and strengthen Odeh, who is trying to open a historic path. Every vote he loses is a vote for a government of Netanyahu, Shaked and Smotrich.