In case you missed it, Israel will be holding national elections on September 17. Yes, this is the second time this year. Hopefully the outcome will not be a stalemate like last time. Please enjoy this series of articles offering insight beyond whether Bibi will be elected that is all relevant to that question that you are probably not getting overseas and which ultimately, at least indirectly, is part of answering that question.
Recently, MK Ayman Odeh, the head of Israel’s Arab “Joint List” said he is willing to join a center-left government under certain conditions following the upcoming election. His statement created backlash both among nationalist (mostly) Jewish parties, as well as from members of his own Arab coalition. It also represented a shift in the traditional opposition of Arab parties to join any government led by a Jewish Zionist party, of any political leaning. Arab parties have never served in an Israeli coalition government, but have supported minority left-wing governments from the outside.
Odeh’s comments could represent a shift in thinking, a slip of the tongue, a trial balloon, or simply clever politicking.
Odds are slim of this happening, if only because Odeh’s cohorts are fervently opposed, including members of Odeh’s own Hadash party, considered the least hostile within the Joint List, most of whom have rejected the idea.
The Joint List was formed before Israel’s 2015 national elections, to ensure that there would remain a large bloc of Arab parties represented. It included parties representing a range of ideologies including socialists, nationalists, secularists, and Islamists. Since then, Arab parties have grown in strength, reaching a peak of over 10 percent of seats of Israel’s Knesset after the 2015 election.
The assumption is that the only government Odeh or the Joint List would support is one led by the head of the Blue and White Party, retired general Benny Gantz. Odeh said, “if we see that there is some common direction, we will seriously consider joining him.”
Earlier in the month, he made a similar statement, “I don’t think that Gantz is ready. He would prefer to form a national unity government [with Likud] over what we want. But if he turns to us and he is going in the right direction of peace and equality, we will listen. I don’t see it happening because of a lot of bad water under the bridge. We are not in his pocket. He will have to come to us.”
It's possible that this was a calculated strategy to pick up votes particularly from Arabs who would otherwise vote for a left-wing Zionist Jewish party, and think that a vote for the Joint List could lead to greater Arab representation and influence if not a greater push toward peace.
It's certain that right-wing parties will counter with the message that voting for a left-wing party could break the taboo on bringing Arab parties into a government. Indeed, Likud’s Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan was quick to tweet “now it is clear that whoever votes Blue and White will likely get a left-wing government with a terror supporter.” He also criticized Odeh’s conditions for joining a government.
Gantz did not comment on Odeh’s statement, but previously did not categorically rule out joining with the Joint List. He previously said he’d only form a coalition with Zionist parties, ruling out both Israel’s Arab and possibly Ultra-Orthodox parties. Yet fellow Blue and White MKs Gabi Ashkenazi and Yoaz Hendel ruled out the possibility of a future government partnership altogether as a way to buttress the arguments from the right.
“We think Israel’s Arab citizens are equal and that’s how we should treat them,” and added “We won’t be able to sit [in a government] with the Arab parties that don’t recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people.”
MK Hendel offered, “We respect Israel’s Arab citizens and view them as citizens worthy of all rights, but we will not sit with the Arab parties which fundamentally reject Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. Full stop.”
The politicking among Israeli Jewish parties is especially strident because there’s been a conflict of increased radicalization in the Arab community, including abetting terrorists, joining ISIS, and well as Arab members of Knesset who have called for, supported and participated in violence against Israel in what seems to be increasing incidents in the past generation.
In a backward and somewhat Israeli way of presenting a platform, and standing firm in its positions, Odeh listed conditions for joining a government as ending the “occupation.” renewal of peace negotiations with the Palestinians, overturning last year’s controversial Jewish nation-state law, establishment of a new Arab city, an end to the demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank deemed illegal, cancellating of a law that strengthened punishments for construction-related offense, and stricter enforcement of gun laws in the Arab Israeli communities.
Another challenge with joining a Gantz led government is that Gantz only recently retired from a career in the IDF, rising to the rank of General, and serving as Chief of Staff. On that level, Arabs would have a hard time joining him because he oversaw many military operations against Palestinian Arab terrorists which some Arab extremists call “war crimes,” and the support of Israeli Arabs would likely be taken as a slap by Palestinian Arabs.
Ironically while Israeli Arabs often complain of unequal representation, in 2015 the Joint List won 13 seats, and became the second-largest opposition party. This year, depending on which parties win how many votes and how many form the next government, its possible to see the Joint List having the largest number of seats among opposition parties, becoming the leader of the opposition for the first time, and entitling them to classified security and other briefings.
There are many factors that will influence the outcome of the election. The important thing is to pray that it is a good outcome for Israel and all its citizens, Arabs and Jews.