Political Affairs: Netanyahu’s nightmare - Odeh becomes the kingmaker?

The PM’s focus on Arab turnout seems to have only deepened the stalemate in the Knesset and brought the Joint List to historic heights.

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September 20, 2019 05:22
Joint List leader Ayman Odeh votes, September 17, 2019

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh votes, September 17, 2019. (photo credit: JOINT LIST)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu versus the Joint List is a story that begins before the first election this year, in April.

In that election campaign, the Likud campaign repeatedly used the slogan “Bibi or Tibi,” meaning, either the Likud wins and Netanyahu is prime minister, or Blue and White wins, and Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi is empowered.

Netanyahu and his party asserted that Blue and White leader Benny Gantz would build a government leaning on the Joint List, or the two smaller Arab blocs that ran in April’s election, despite protestations and denials from Blue and White.

Then, on Election Day in April, operatives hired by the Likud were caught wearing hidden cameras in polling stations in Arab areas, to try to stop a recurrence of voter fraud that observers had reported in past elections.

In the ensuing months between when the coalition voted to call a second election and this week’s vote, cameras were a recurring theme, with the Likud planning to expand its documentation efforts – which were then blocked by the Central Elections Committee – and then trying and failing to pass a law to circumvent the committee. Toward the end of the process, Netanyahu started warning that people were going to “steal the election,” and eventually referred more explicitly to Israeli Arabs.

In the days preceding the September 17 election, Netanyahu’s Facebook chatbot sent out a message saying that Arab politicians “want to destroy us all – women, children and men – and enable a nuclear Iran that would wipe us out.” Netanyahu said someone from his campaign wrote the message and that he ordered that it be erased once he became aware of it. Facebook temporarily suspended the chatbot for hate speech.

On Election Day, Netanyahu repeatedly warned of high voter turnout rates among his political opponents, echoing his 2015 statement that “Arab voters are moving in great quantities to the polling stations.” Speaking into a megaphone and holding a comically large Likud voting slip in Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station, Netanyahu said: “Eli Levi, a Channel 13 reporter, reported an hour and a half ago in the North that there is a surprisingly high voter turnout in Arab villages... [He said he] hasn’t seen such lines in his life... The Palestinian Authority’s official message said to go out to bring down Netanyahu.”

Joint List Ayman Odeh responded to each affront in turn, but this tweet from after the chatbot comment sums up his position: “Netanyahu is a psychopath without redlines and he wants to see blood. This shameful criminal will continue cheapening our blood as long as he thinks it will help him escape prison. We contacted Facebook. They must act immediately to put an end to Netanyahu’s racist and dangerous incitement against the Arab public.”

WITH NEARLY all the votes counted, we now know that, while his style rankled many, Netanyahu was right about the facts. Arab voter turnout was up, and it did hurt the Right’s chances of forming the next government.

The Joint List estimated Israeli Arab turnout at over 59%, 10 points up from April. In the 21st Knesset, Hadash-Ta’al and UAL-Balad received a combined 10 seats; the Joint List is poised to have 12-13 in the 22nd.

Netanyahu doesn’t deserve all the credit or blame, depending on how you look at it, for the Joint List’s return to its pre-2019 force.

As Joint List MK Yousef Jabareen said Thursday, the high turnout “demonstrates that the Arab Palestinian public in Israel prefers a united political list and, accordingly, values unity and cooperation from their national leaders.”

Despite the fact that the politicians feuded constantly in the years since the Joint List was formed, Arab citizens want them to work out their differences. In addition, a mysterious billboard campaign calling on Arab citizens to boycott April’s election disappeared soon after.

But it’s clear that Netanyahu didn’t hurt.

“Many in our community believed that Netanyahu could be defeated and contributed to achieving this goal,” Jabareen said. “Despite Netanyahu’s widespread use of incitement and hate against our community, our campaign focused on the positive messages of change and hope.”

If anything, there was a sort of symbiotic relationship between the Likud and the Joint List. Netanyahu attacked to motivate his voters to vote, and in response, the Joint List spurred its voters by calling Netanyahu and the Right racist.

THE RESULT of Netanyahu’s focus on Arab voters is his own nightmare scenario, the one he kept describing.

There has been a lot of talk about Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman as the post-election kingmaker, but Odeh also holds a key to the castle – one that only Gantz can use.

The Joint List is currently debating whether to recommend Gantz to President Reuven Rivlin. Historically, the Arab parties have not recommended a candidate since former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. And Balad, which has two seats in the new Knesset, will keep up that tradition. But the other 10-11 seats have the potential to make a big difference for Gantz when it comes to getting the most support and being tasked with forming the next government.

Netanyahu has already started slamming Gantz for this hypothetical scenario, saying that, without the Right, the only option is for Gantz to form “a dangerous government leaning on Arabs.”

But it’s not so clear that this option will come to fruition. Odeh said on Wednesday: “We are not in anyone’s pocket, and we have to hear many things from Gantz” before agreeing to recommend him.

Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman, of Odeh’s Hadash Party, told KAN Bet on Wednesday: “I don’t see that Gantz gave us a good reason to recommend him.”

AND THERE’S certainly no chance that Gantz can rely on the Joint List to form a coalition.

Jabareen said: “We will continue our struggle against discrimination and racism in Israel, while also advocating for the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, as this is the only viable solution for the region. This platform forms the core of our political endeavors. There is no real alternative to a Netanyahu-led government unless this platform is adopted by Israeli decision-makers.”

Blue and White does not support a return to pre-1967 lines. Its platform explicitly says “the Jordan Valley will be the eastern security border of Israel” and “a united Jerusalem will be the eternal capital of Israel.” It calls for “a process of separation from the Palestinians,” without mentioning a state. So it seems unlikely that it will meet the Joint List’s standards.

And Blue and White probably doesn’t really want the Joint List in its camp, either. For all the Joint List’s talk about fighting racism, its MKs do not support a Jewish state in the way that the vast majority of Israeli Jews and their representatives in the Knesset understand that idea. Joint List lawmakers past and present have paid tribute to terrorists who attacked Israelis, in speeches and in visits to prisons and graves. They’ve called IDF responses to attacks from Palestinians illegitimate.

“If he was in the government and it wanted to attack Gaza, he would vote against it,” an Israeli Arab said in a Channel 13 report Wednesday night.

“I wouldn’t be in a government that attacks Gaza,” Odeh responded.

If anything, Blue and White’s leaders have called for a more robust response to rocket attacks from Gaza than what we’ve seen in recent years.

So, while the Joint List has more seats in this Knesset than the last, and Odeh could potentially be Gantz’s kingmaker, they’re unlikely to have any governmental power.

If the option of a unity government comes to fruition, then Odeh could be the first-ever Arab opposition leader in Israel. This would entail speaking at official national events and after the prime minister addresses the Knesset, and it would mean Odeh would receive monthly national security briefings from the prime minister and his top aides.

“Opposition leader is an interesting job, and an unprecedented one for the Arab public” in Israel, Odeh said on Wednesday. “What is most important is that this is an important platform to meet with the prime minister and meet world leaders and tell them about the Nation-State Law. Finally, there will be an opposition.”

Regardless of what kind of job Odeh gets out of the situation, the Joint List is celebrating a victory because of the political stalemate the Knesset has reached. Its MKs say they are proud to be keeping Netanyahu from forming another homogeneously right-wing coalition, and possibly keeping him out of office.

“We, the Arab citizens, with our votes, prevented the formation of an extremist right-wing government led by Netanyahu,” Odeh said. “The big change in this election, the No. 1 thing, is voter turnout in the Arab public... Without it, Netanyahu would be prime minister.”

Speaking to reporters, Odeh addressed remarks to Netanyahu by calling him “father of Yair” in Arabic, referring to Netanyahu’s son who often writes controversial social media posts.

“Abu Yair,” Odeh said, “incitement has a price.”


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