Israeli-Arab party not ruling out joining future coalition

Head of the Arab Hadash Party Ayman Odeh does not exclude entering a future coalition headed by Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, though he has a list of conditions.

al-monitor Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, gestures during a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 1, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Corinna Kern.

Apr 7, 2019

The new Arab generation in Israel is similar in a way to the new ultra-Orthodox generation. The “new Arab,” much like the “new ultra-Orthodox Jew,” demands civic recognition (no longer as a marginalized minority group but as equal citizen) and understands that in order to achieve that goal, he must be part of the political game. Or, as I was told by Ghanim — my friend from Sakhnin who asked that his full name not be divulged — “We are sick and tired of being the ones on the back rows. We want to be on the playing field, even on the bench, but at least partners.”

A statistics expert who spoke to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity relayed the finding of an academic study carried out in September 2018 regarding the Arab population. The study showed that 77% of the respondents support “integration of Israel’s Arabs in the State instead of fighting it,” and 70% support the statement that “the Joint List party must deal more with the interests of Arab Israelis over those of the Palestinians in the territories.”

The Arab political system in Israel is not indifferent to this civic demand. The Joint List used to include four factions: Ta’al, Hadash, Balad and Ra’am. But in January 2019, Ta’al and Hadash each split from the Joint List alliance, leaving Balad and Ra’am. Ta’al and Hadash are now running on a joint slate. This dismantling reflects the growing demand within the Arab public for a civic approach aspiring to social inclusion.

In fact, the Balad party, which champions turning the State of Israel into a "state of all of its citizens," and the Islamist Ra’am party constitute stumbling blocks in this inclusion trend. These parties object to joining forces with other parties and participating in a Likud-blocking bloc or supporting in any way a coalition. The party’s prominent representatives cannot be considered potential partners to Zionist parties in any political deal. Not former Knesset member Azmi Bashara, who was accused of spying; not former Knesset member Basel Ghattas, who was indicted for smuggling telephones to security prisoners; and certainly not outgoing Knesset member Hanin Zoabi, who had become known for her extremist views.

Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh from the Hadash Party implemented this demand for inclusion to a certain extent in the outgoing Knesset. For example, he was involved in Government Resolution 922: Five Year Economic Development Plan for Arab Society. This plan budgeted 15 billion shekels ($4.2 billion) to narrow the gaps between the Arab and Jewish populations. Knesset member and Ta'al leader Ahmed Tibi joined up with Odeh in the Joint List toward the April 9 elections. In the past, he promoted legislative initiatives to encourage hiring Arabs in the public sector and more. Without Balad and Ra’am, Odeh and Tibi were able to adopt more pragmatic positions toward resolution of the socio-economic problems of the Arab public.

In an interview given by Odeh, he made it clear that he was willing to go far in order to promote the direction of civic involvement now that he is “released” from the chains of Balad and Ra’am. In fact, he even considers a partnership in the coalition, if only from the outside. Odeh is more focused and passionate than ever with regard to direct political issues, especially by the struggle against the Nationality Law that anchors the Jewish nature of the State of Israel. In response to the question of whether he would support a center-left coalition headed by the Blue and White party, he invokes demands that are mainly socio-economic in nature. “Of course, we’ll tell the president about our deep opposition to [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and his racist policies. But we’re not in [Blue and White leader Benny] Gantz’s pocket either. First of all, he must display some kind of orientation toward equality — to be willing to revoke the Nationality Law, for example. But in addition, other corrections have to be made,” Odeh said. These include, according to Odeh, an extended continuation plan for Resolution 922; a national program for overcoming crime in the Arab society; and revoking the Kaminitz Law, which mandates more severe punishments for construction infractions — one of the more painful issues in the Arab sector.

Odeh is definitely not sure about Gantz: At the beginning of the election campaign, the former chief of staff boasted about the numerous Palestinians killed by the IDF in Gaza. Odeh is concerned about whether Gantz will be a true partner to what he views as "reconciliation with the Arab society," but already raises one important, central precondition: official Israeli recognition of what he calls "past injustices" including the massacre in Kfar Kassem, nationalization of Arab lands and more. Such a reconciliation could include making Arabic an official language and removing opposition to conducting a discussion on what he calls “national rights of the Arab-Israeli citizen in Israel.” Odeh added, “If and when Gantz chooses the path of historic conciliation and willingness to accept the conditions I raised, we will sit together and responsibly decide about a possible partnership.”

The willingness expressed by Odeh and his partners is no less historic. The last time an Arab party expressed willingness to support a coalition from the outside and participate in an obstructive bloc stemmed from the historic event of the 1993 Oslo Accord. Now, the pressure from the Arab public on its representatives for more political involvement and the concern over the growth of apathy in the Arab society resulting in a drop in voting percentages is bearing fruit. On the other hand, the heads of the Blue and White party have made statements that they will only consider partnerships with the Zionist parties, thus making it uncertain that Odeh’s aspirations will bear fruit. And, of course, there is great likelihood that a right-wing government will arise headed by Benjamin Netanyahu.

Nevertheless, Odeh’s change of direction is important. The representatives of the Arab public will have to be real partners in decisions that affect their fate. Even if they don’t become part of the next coalition, perhaps they will join another coalition in the future.

In the interview, Odeh made another interesting statement that makes it hard to believe it came from the mouth of an errant socialist with a communist background: “Ultimately, the market will win out over racism.” Odeh explained that in the 1950s, one of the main reasons that Israel removed the military government from the Arab localities was the need in Israel for Arab builders. Similarly, the economic needs of the state today dictate government programs on behalf of the Arab society, ironically under a diehard right-wing government.

The new chairman of Balad, Mtanes Shihadeh, will be very surprised if the Hadash Party and Ta’al will be prepared to lend any kind of support to the coalition, even from the outside. The significance of his words is that Odeh would not have been able to even bring up the option of discussing such a thing if the Joint List had remained united. Even Shihadeh, who has a doctorate in political science, expresses a slight change of direction regarding the emphases of his party. Yet he is careful not to disparage Knesset members Hanin Zoabi and Jamal Zahalka, outgoing party leaders, who came under much criticism from the general Jewish public. He explains that Balad challenges the accepted conventions of Israeli society and, therefore, arouses strong feelings. Shihadeh notes that even Azmi Bashara, the founder of Balad who skipped the country after being accused of spying for Hezbollah, and Hanin Zoabi were both partner to numerous struggles for changes in civil legislation. In practically the same breath, he adds, “We will be more ready for a dialogue with the Jewish society, including those who most oppose us on the Israeli right. Perhaps we will succeed in showing them that our demands are logical and democratic.”

An interesting step in that direction is the placement of a female Jewish candidate, Orly Noy-Abekasis, in the sixth spot on the list (though according to polls, it is not a realistic spot). Balad prepared an organized action-plan on the basis of findings of research studies. But unlike the past, the research basically focuses on economic and civil issues.

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