Will Israeli Jewish and Arab politicians cooperate against Netanyahu?

The invitation extended by the Blue and White party to Arab Knesset member Ayman Odeh to address the opposition rally last week might reflect a change in its perception of Arab parties.

al-monitor Ayman Odeh, leader of Hadash-Ta'al party, attends a hearing at Israel's Supreme Court in Jerusalem, March 13, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Awad.

May 29, 2019

The participation of Hadash-Ta’al party leader Ayman Odeh in the opposition parties’ May 25 anti-government rally in Tel Aviv got off on the wrong foot, but it ended with hope. Knesset member Ofer Shelah of Blue and White, the rally organizer, invited Odeh to address the event. Odeh answered in the affirmative several days later, only to be told the list of speakers was already closed.

It turned out that between the time the invitation was first issued, about two weeks before the event, and the time of Odeh’s response, Blue and White members affiliated with the right wing (such as former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and two former aides to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel) mounted a mini-revolt. They argued that Odeh’s participation, as head of an Arab party, would be detrimental and thwart future prospects of garnering right-wing voter support for Blue and White.

In the ensuing uproar, the political left argued that, paradoxically, while the opposition was mobilizing to defend Israel’s democracy, it was pushing away Arab citizens, who constitute a 21% minority.

In the campaign leading up to the April 9 general elections, leaders of Blue and White, which was established prior to the elections to take down Netanyahu, avoided all contact with the Arab parties. The leadership believed that if the party portrayed itself as “neither left nor right,” it would increase the odds of garnering support from moderate voters on the political right and achieve victory. In that regard, they saw Odeh as a red flag.

Netanyahu, as usual, whipped up fear among his rivals, using his campaign to warn against his rivals’ alleged plot to cooperate with the Arab parties, as if they were an enemy threatening Israel’s security and well-being. The centrist Blue and White, as well as Labor chair Avi Gabbay, fell into the same trap. They steered clear of the major Arab faction, not to mention the smaller, more militant Balad-Ra’am faction, and the results were not long coming. Only the left-wing, Zionist Meretz party attracted Arab voters, who enabled it to obtain sufficient votes to get into the Knesset. On the other hand, those “fleeing the Arabs” failed, as reflected in the results.

The public uproar and pressure on Blue and White chair Benny Gantz over Odeh’s apparent exclusion from the opposition rally saved the day. Several hours before the protest, Gantz himself called Odeh and invited him to speak. Odeh accepted at once. He realized this was not the time for grandstanding and ego wars.

Data compiled by one of Israel’s mobile phone providers indicates that some 50,000 people took part in the demonstration. Odeh spoke — and, surprisingly, the sky did not fall. The crowd clapped enthusiastically, and he shook hands with many of those present after leaving the stage. This is what a united struggle by the opposition against government moves led by Netanyahu and his emissaries to trample Israeli democracy should look like.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Knesset member Odeh reveals that he initiated a meeting with Gantz about two weeks ago (before the rally was actually scheduled), and discussed with him future cooperation within the framework of the parliamentary opposition that Gantz heads. In fact, that meeting paved the way for Odeh’s invitation to address the Tel Aviv protest.

“We had a serious meeting,” Odeh said. “The things that were said, both in agreement and disagreement, influenced the next moves. We discussed cooperation, saying we had to work together to legitimize Israel’s Arab population. For the Arabs to feel they belong, their leadership must be recognized as legitimate and treated accordingly.”

However, not all was smooth sailing. Blue and White Knesset members Hendel and Hauser decided to boycott the event in light of Odeh’s participation. Knesset member Ya’alon took the stage to speak but backed his colleagues and claimed Odeh’s inclusion on the speakers’ list kept Likud supporters away. “Blue and White espouses a Jewish and democratic State of Israel,” he tweeted. “We have a serious dispute with Ayman Odeh regarding the ‘Jewishness’ … the protest focused on democracy and on that issue there is no argument with Odeh.”

Being a man of integrity, Ya’alon could not ignore the Likud party’s outspoken reaction to Odeh’s participation: "Terrorist supporter Ayman Odeh speaks with the blessing of Lapid and Gantz,” the party stated, referring to Blue and White co-chair Yair Lapid. “Treating all Arabs as terrorists is part of the problem,” Ya’alon tweeted in response. “I would outlaw the Balad party of [former Knesset member Azmi] Bishara and [former Knesset members Basel] Ghattas and Hanin Zoabi over their support for terrorism, but I also commanded Arab soldiers in the army and have visited bereaved Arab families. Netanyahu is willing to bring it all down in flames in order to survive.”

Ya’alon had touched on the central issue that led Gantz to meet with Odeh in a bid to find common ground. The Arab Joint List party that Odeh headed in the previous Knesset fell apart prior to the April elections. As a result, Balad and Ra’am ran jointly whereas Hadash, under Odeh’s leadership, joined the Ta’al party of Knesset member Ahmad Tibi. Gantz and probably Lapid found it easier to stand side by side with Odeh on the same stage at the rally, given his separation from the provocative lawmakers of Balad, who espouse an Israeli state of all its citizens, not just of the Jews.

Odeh does not deny that without Balad, Hadash-Ta’al would find it easier to partner with Israel’s center-left Jewish parties, but he is careful not to provide ammunition to those claiming Balad supports terrorism. “Undoubtedly there were tough arguments with Balad,” he said. “Nonetheless, I do not share in its delegitimization and I will fight for its rights.”

When he read his speech at the Tel Aviv Museum plaza, Knesset member Odeh weighed every word, syllable and comma. For him, this was an opportunity to highlight what Jews and Arab have in common and to breach the wall of delegitimization by right-wing and centrist parties he has experienced since being elected Hadash party chair five years ago.

“We Arab citizens may not be able to do it alone, but without us, it is impossible,” Odeh said in his speech. “This struggle is intertwined with peace, equality, social justice. It demands partnership between courageous leaders. I am willing [to have] such a partnership in order to bring about change.”

Odeh told Al-Monitor that he aspired to say “things that are true and for this not to be my last speech with them, but my first. I did not want Gantz to say afterward, ‘That’s it. We can no longer be together.’ I wanted this to have a follow-up.”

Gantz called Odeh after the demonstration to congratulate him on his speech and the two agreed to continue this successful experiment. I asked Odeh whether he thinks Gantz and his senior party colleagues would revert to their past behavior and cut off all ties with him if elections are held once again later this year. “They can no longer do so,” he answered. “After what happened on Saturday, the die has been cast. From now on, what is needed is a courageous partnership between true leaders.”

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