The best answer to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s video last Election Day about “Arabs going to the polls in droves” would be the election of MK Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, as leader of the opposition. Israel needs an opposition that will challenge the current right-wing government, which seeks to annex the territories, weaken democracy and freedom of expression and perpetuate discrimination against the Arab community. Odeh represents the opposite values: He’s in favor of peace, in favor of democracy and in favor of equality.
Such a clash is necessary given the utter failure of outgoing opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who didn’t pose any ideological or practical alternative to the Netanyahu government. Herzog spent his first year in office in a pathetic attempt to join the coalition as foreign minister. Then, after Netanyahu abandoned him, preferring Avigdor Lieberman instead, Herzog was neutralized. And once he lost the Labor Party leadership to Avi Gabbay, Herzog focused on finding a new job. In this, he was more successful, landing the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency.
The Knesset must not repeat the Herzog model, which turned the post of leader of the opposition into an empty joke with an armored car, bodyguards and periodic meetings with Netanyahu. Israelis deserve an opposition with a clear message that differs from the government’s positions and a determination to make the coalition’s life difficult despite the inbuilt inferiority of a parliamentary minority.
Based on his positions and political activity in recent years, Odeh could present a clear ideological alternative to the government of Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett. It’s hard to say the same about his colleagues in the opposition from the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid parties. Even using a magnifying glass, it’s hard to discern ideological differences between them and the current government.
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Electing Odeh to the national post of leader of the opposition would also make an important symbolic contribution to Israeli democracy and advance equality between Arabs and Jews in this country. The leader of the opposition has the right to respond to the prime minister’s Knesset speeches. According to diplomatic protocol, he also meets with any leaders or foreign ministers who visit Israel from abroad. From Odeh, they would hear a different Israeli view, one that rejects annexation of the West Bank, aggressive action in the Gaza Strip and discrimination inside Israel.
Give the current balance of forces in the Knesset, it would be hard for Odeh to secure support from a majority of the opposition to get elected as Herzog’s replacement. Zionist Union is split over the question of whether MK Tzipi Livni – leader of the joint ticket’s Hatnuah faction as well as the ticket’s most experienced member, having formerly served as foreign minister and justice minister – should be appointed leader of the opposition, or whether the job should go to a member of the Labor Party, which is Zionist Union’s largest faction.
Yet despite the rift in Zionist Union, there’s no chance either its members or Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and his people would prefer to support the chairman of the Joint List. And that’s a pity.