Ayman Odeh is poised to make history, no matter the results on Sept. 17

The head of the Joint List of Arab parties, Odeh has indicated that under the right conditions he would recommend to President Reuven Rivlin that Blue and White leader Benny Gantz form a government.

MK Ayman Odeh places camera in PM Benjamin Netanyahu's face during debate on bill legislating filming in polling stations (photo credit: ISAAC HARARI / KNESSET SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)
MK Ayman Odeh places camera in PM Benjamin Netanyahu's face during debate on bill legislating filming in polling stations
No matter the final results of next week’s election, Ayman Odeh is poised to make history.
The head of the Joint List of Arab parties, Odeh has indicated that under the right conditions he would recommend to President Reuven Rivlin that Blue and White leader Benny Gantz form a government and even consider joining a Center-Left coalition under his leadership.
Since 1948, the Jewish establishment has not welcomed Arab-led parties in the government, identifying them as potential enemies of the state. At the same time, Arab leaders have expressed little interest in joining a coalition, which would mean accepting Israel’s military control of the West Bank, known to them as the occupation.
As such, if Odeh’s Joint List joins a government, it will be the first time in Israeli history.
Alternatively, Odeh could likewise influence this new government’s policy via what is known as an obstructive bloc, or as leader of the opposition. Such a bloc would mean the Joint List would back the government from outside a minority coalition and prevent it from falling, in return for meeting its demands.
The Arab parties have never had such clout. But with the four main Arab factions – Balad, Hadash, Ta’al and the United Arab List – now reunited under Odeh’s leadership, polls project the Joint List potentially becoming the third-largest party after the election.
“AS YOU can see, these are very important elections,” Odeh, 44, told a small group of foreign press in a briefing on Wednesday. “It is a very competitive election, and we don’t know what the final results will be. But there is no doubt that the Arab citizens of Israel are big players in this election.”
Odeh is not the only one who recognizes this.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been running a full campaign against the Arab population. On Wednesday, an automated pop-up message appeared on the prime minister’s official Facebook page claiming, “Arabs want to annihilate us all – women, children and men.”
Though the prime minister attempted to distance himself from the message, and a Likud spokeswoman said that the post was a mistake of a headquarters employee, it appeared on the same day that Likud member and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein had Odeh forcibly removed from the Knesset chamber during a debate before a vote on the bill that would have allowed cameras to film polling stations.
Odeh confronted Netanyahu and put a phone camera directly in front of the prime minister’s face.
In 2015, in a last-ditch attempt to rally his supporters as the country went to the polls, Netanyahu sent an incendiary message warning that a high turnout of Israeli Arab voters could threaten his party’s hold on power.
“The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves,” he said in a video message. “Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses.”
“There is not a single prime minister who has incited against Arabs as much as Netanyahu,” Odeh said. “If I take all the prime ministers together and all the attacks they put out against us over the years, it would not be equivalent to even 10% of the incitement that Netanyahu has put out there.”
Odeh said, however, that he does not view the prime minister’s tactics as just “cynical” or even “racist,” but, rather, he believes Netanyahu knows “that he is in trouble” and “he is not thinking about the day after the election, he is only thinking about the election.”
“Netanyahu is always looking for an enemy,” he continued. “Sometimes it is Iran, and sometimes it is a simple person like me.... A leader either governs by hope or fear. He has no hope, so he looks for fear.”
The Arab leader said he is hopeful that, come September 17, “Netanyahu will be the one crying.” Odeh believes that if he can generate enough excitement and boost Arab turnout, it could be enough to topple Netanyahu.
In the April 2019 election, a record low 49% of Arabs voted.
“This time we are going to get 90%,” Odeh said enthusiastically.
While polls do not indicate that nearly that many Arab citizens will vote, a poll released this week by Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and the Israel Office of the German Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung indicated that a 56% Arab voter turnout is expected, which would be much more aligned with the historical average in the decade preceding the establishment of the Joint List in 2015.
A July poll by Abraham Initiatives, Sikkuy and aChord found that nearly one-third (32%) of Arab citizens were undecided about whether to vote in the September 17 election, while 42% of Arab Israelis definitely intended to vote. If the majority of undecided voters turn out, as many as 74% of Arab Israelis could cast their ballots.
According to the Tel Aviv poll, the main reason for abstaining from voting among those who did not intend to vote or were undecided was the abusive attitudes of Jewish politicians to the Arab public (34%). Abraham Initiatives found that 34% of those who did not vote in April chose not to because they felt “my vote is pointless.” Only 14% of those who did not vote in April 2019 did so for ideological reasons, accounting for just 7% of the entire Arab-Israeli electorate.
“We are going to... prove to our voters exactly how powerful they are,” Odeh told The Jerusalem Post. “We need to do what we can – everything to get rid of this government so we can have hope and a new future.”
He said that if Netanyahu wins, “Israel will become an apartheid state – period.”
Odeh added that “If Netanyahu continues and this crazy guy in America stays in office, there will be darkness,” referring to US President Donald Trump.
“We can’t do it alone, but without us it can’t be done,” he said.
Still, Odeh said that just because he wants to topple the Right, does not mean he will automatically join a Gantz government.
“We want to get rid of this government, but we are not in Gantz’s pocket,” he said.
Odeh reiterated that the Blue and White head would need to come toward him and his party’s demands if they are to partner.
Odeh’s terms for joining are centered around four issues: urban planning and building, violence, welfare and policy. He is requesting, among other things, freezing private home demolitions in the West Bank; repealing a law that dispenses harsher punishments for building infractions; and the construction of a new Arab city.
He has likewise requested that a Center-Left government repeal the Nation-State Law and renew negotiations with the Palestinians aimed at ending military control in the West Bank and establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“We will be partners in the government only if Arab citizens will no longer be second-class citizens,” he told the Post. “We will not abandon the Palestinians in the West Bank.
“We have a platform for peace that 95% of the world supports – a two-state solution,” he said. “Only Netanyahu, Trump and Micronesia are against it.”
ODEH AND the Joint List, however, do not represent the opinions of all Arab Israelis. Arab society in Israel is not a homogeneous political or ideological community, but, rather, is made up of moderate, Islamic, nationalist and communist streams.
Furthermore, in the past, Arab members of Knesset have come under fire for being motivated more by self-interest than by a desire to serve the public interest, and for being more focused on the Arabs living in the West Bank and Gaza than the ones who elected them inside the Green Line.
However, it seems that nearly half of Arab citizens of Israel are ready to step up and support a more politically active Arab leadership.
The Tel Aviv poll found that 49% of those intending to vote on Election Day believed that, under the right circumstances, an Arab party should join a government coalition. Another one-third (28.8%) believed that Arab parties should not enter the government but support it from the outside. 
“I pass the ball to Gantz,” Odeh said.
“We are not against Israeli society, we are fighting for Israeli society,” he continued. “We want peace, democracy, equality and social justice. These are the real interests of our two nations.... Our values are universal and for all the people of Israel.”
Yet Odeh brushed off attempts to paint him as a potential historic figure.
“I want to be Ayman Odeh, a person who makes a real contribution to peace, equality and democracy and brings Jews and Arabs closer together,” Odeh told the Post. “That is who I want to be.”