Opportunity for change

Since 1992, when supporting late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Arab parties enacted a policy not to support any candidate from neither the Right nor the Left.

September 25, 2019 20:50
3 minute read.
Opportunity for change

MK Ayman Odeh, the leader of Hadash-Ta'al Party, and Benny gantz, head of the Blue and White Party.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

A historic landmark in Jewish-Arab relations was reached on Sunday.

When Joint List leader Ayman Odeh told President Reuven Rivlin that his party recommends Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to receive the mandate to establish a coalition, he broke a 27-year-long refusal by elected Arab leaders to collaborate with a potentially governing faction.

Since 1992, when supporting late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Arab parties enacted a policy not to support any candidate from neither the Right nor the Left.

But in Sunday’s meeting at the President’s Residence, Odeh presented a new approach – which seems to be gaining traction within Arab-Israeli society – of curbing protest policies in favor of proactive measures.

After blaming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for incitement against Arab-Israelis and stating the goal to replace him, Odeh said that in the past decade, the gap between Jews and Arabs has become even wider.

“If in the 1990s we were considered a legitimate group in Israeli politics, under Benjamin Netanyahu we were turned into an illegitimate group in Israeli politics,” he said. “No one will just hand us influence, we will take it.”

Odeh then said that “Our public has done the first half of the journey [electing the Joint List], and we are here to complete the second half.” He also surprisingly quoted the book of Psalms: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” implying that Arabs have become a dominant force in Israeli politics.

Odeh’s remarks seem to fairly represent the point of view of Arab-Israeli society. In April’s election, when Arab parties ran in two lists and did not declare any intention of support or joining any part of the political map, many preferred to stay at home and both lists received a combined 10 seats.

However, ahead of September’s election, the Arab parties joined forces and in late August, Odeh presented terms to join a coalition. These moves proved effective as the Arab turnout jumped from 49% to 59%. The Joint List received 13 seats, becoming the third largest party in the Knesset.

But this success wasn’t welcomed among certain groups, Jewish and Arab.

Balad,the nationalist faction within the Joint List – which will have three representatives in the coming Knesset – announced that it will not support Blue and White, a party headed by three ex-generals. This led the Joint List’s Ahmad Tibi to pen a letter to Rivlin stating that the party’s recommendation is only from 10 members, barring Balad’s three.

The Joint List’s surprising move predictably attracted criticism from the Right. Amid the struggle to build a large bloc, members of right-wing parties have questioned the legitimacy of the Joint List’s support. There is some legitimacy to that claim. Some of the List’s members have made anti-Israel and anti-Zionist remarks through the years, and continue to do so.

Before Arabs-Israelis can become full participants in government, there needs to be an understanding that Israel is a Jewish democratic state, not just a democratic state. And there needs to be an understanding that, while one can work tirelessly for the creation of a Palestinian state, there can be no tolerance for any Arab MK who doesn’t condemn terror.

Nonetheless, it is essential for us to identify and reach out to the increasing moderate voices in Arab-Israeli society. Statements attributed to Israel’s prime minister, such as “the Arabs are running in droves to the polling stations,” have the opposite effect by making Arabs feel unwanted, increasing the likelihood of pushing them into the hands of radical nationalists.

We should hope, for all our sakes, that whether Netanyahu, Gantz or both form the next government, they will be smart enough to pick up what Odeh has put in front of them by working toward making Arab members viable partners in government.

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