As Israel heads into its third elections in 11 months, there is one politician worth following closely: Ayman Odeh, the 44-year-old head of the Joint List, a combined slate of Arab parties. He wants to be taken seriously in all fields of life. Including politics. As the political establishment is focused on round three of the same ‘to Bibi, or not to Bibi’ show, Odeh is trying to bring Arabs inside Israel’s process in a way that has not happened before.
Unlike prior Israeli-Arab leaders, Odeh does not operate solely as an outsider, and his emotional range goes beyond anger or opposition shouting. For example, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in November that a government based on Arab support presented “an existential threat to Israel,” Odeh responded by Tweeting a picture of himself reading to his children, with the caption: “After a long day, need to put these three existential threats to sleep!”
Odeh’s ability to harness the anti-Arab rhetoric from the right, not only condemn it, has been on display throughout this seemingly endless election cycle. It shows up not just in humorous Tweets, but in voter turnout and in behind-the-scenes negotiating. And Netanyahu’s statement shows the right’s fear is no longer only Arab violence – but also their willingness to be part and parcel of Israel, including its government institutions.
Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics recently announced that the state has 1.9 million Arab citizens, about 21% of the overall population of 9.1 million.
On Election Day back in 2015, Netanyahu claimed “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.” Odeh appropriated the racist warning starting more than a year ago, promising, indeed, that ““The Arabs will head to the polls.”
And he has delivered. In the first round of Benny Gantz’s attempt to unseat Netanyahu, back in April, Arab turnout was under 50%, the lowest in 25 years, and nearly 20 points behind the national average. In round two in September, as Netanyahu tried to intimidate Arab voters, Odeh responded by saying “no one can ignore a million voters” — and Arab turnout jumped to 59%, cutting the gap with the national average in half.
A lawyer from Haifa, Odeh began his political career in Hadash, a party preaching Arab and Jewish coexistence. But his stature grew significantly when an electoral rule-change pushed the disparate Arab parties to come together as the Joint List, first in 2015 and again in this ongoing cycle.
That meant Odeh was running with Balad, the nationalist pro-Palestinian faction, which included Haneen Zoabi, a Parliament member who believes the concept of Israel as a Jewish state is inherently racist, and Basel Ghattas, who was later convicted of smuggling cellphones to terrorists in Israeli prisons.
Such colleagues made things difficult. Yair Lapid, who is now among the leaders of Gantz’s “Blue and White” party, famously once said that he would never sit in government “with those Zoabis,” expressing the deep antagonism many Israelis feel towards Balad. Odeh’s position is that Ghattas and Zoabi do not represent his community: he is the voice of most Arabs, who want to improve their lives and integrate into Israel, rather than fight the state.
This is evident by the ascent of individual Arabs to national leadership positions, including the appointment of Dr. Samer Haj Yehia as chairman of Bank Leumi and Masad Barhoum, M.D., as manager of a state hospital. It is also seen in social trends, such as the rising participation rate of Arabs in academia – from 10% in 2010 to more than 16% in 2017.
Following April’s elections, Odeh took a bold step towards making the Arab sector part of Israel’s positive political discourse: 10 of the Joint List’s 13 members recommended that Gantz be prime minister (Balad made no recommendation, as almost all Arab lawmakers have done since Israel’s inception, essentially boycotting the process).
Yet another step was taken the following month. For the first time in history, the Joint List met with Blue and White representatives for coalition negotiations. Netanyahu had a field day, a picture of Gantz and Odeh, juxtaposed with another photo of himself with IDF soldiers. This highlights how significant the meeting was not only for Odeh, but for Gantz too.
Odeh is just not willing to limit the role of Arab politicians to lobbing criticism from the outside. He wants to shape Israel and be part of it. Never in Israel’s history has an Arab party been part of the decision-making table, and Odeh is inching his – and his party’s – way towards it.
Unlike his colleagues who spend much of their time on Palestinian national issues, Odeh is more focused on kitchen-table issues in Israel’s Arab communities.
Here’s one telling example: Violent crime is much higher in the Arab sector than in Jewish areas. In 2018, for instance, 81 of the country’s 116 murders were in Arab areas — nearly 70%, more than triple the Arab portion of the population. Despite this, Israeli-Arab leaders — and citizens — generally refused to cooperate with the Israeli police. There were too many scars from ugly incidents like the October 2000 riots at the start of the second Palestinian intifada, in which the policer killed 13 Arab citizens.
But Odeh is changing the rules. Last October, in the middle of a year in which the Arab sector saw 94 murders, he demanded that the police collect illegal weapons in those areas. Odeh not only effectively pressured the head of the police department and the minister of public security, he also pressured the Israeli-Arab local and municipal leadership to work with them.
Odeh’s efforts to bring the Arab population into Israel’s political and governing processes is critical as Israel heads into this unprecedented third round of elections, slated for March 2. The left cannot remove Netanyahu without Arab support. The increased parliamentary presence for the Joint List hurts the right. And while coalition negotiations after September’s balloting suggested that Israel’s Jewish majority is not yet ready for a coalition with Arabs, Odeh’s line is forcing it to recognize Israel’s Arab citizens as political players.
After the third elections were announced, Odeh Tweeted a picture of himself and the members of his party holding a sign with the number 15 — setting a goal for how many of Parliament’s 120 seats they aimed to capture. It’s an attainable task for a list that won 13 seats in September (and in the 2015 elections).
This is the path to maintaining Israel’s democratic and Jewish identity: fully recognizing the Arab minority as part of the public discourse. Odeh is worth following because he has the potential to reshape our social landscape, and the skills and patience to take the long road there.
This is the first in a series of Forward articles about the March 2 Israeli elections by Dana Weiss, Chief Political Analyst for Israel’s Channel 12 TV.
In third round of Netanyahu v. Gantz, watch Ayman Odeh