The only difference between Bibi and Gantz Is Ayman Odeh
Recently, Ayman Odeh, the leader of the mostly Arab Israeli political party the Joint List, sat down with and Benny Gantz, the leader of Kachol Lavan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s challenger for Israel’s premiership. A person with direct knowledge of the discussion who was only permitted to share it on the condition he not be named told me what happened: Odeh presented Gantz with a list of 32 demands for the equality and wellbeing of Arab Israelis, in exchange for which he was willing to grant his support to Gantz’s government. The list included things like fighting crime and restoring security to Arab communities, and more funding for education. Gantz agreed to at least 28 items on the list, and at the end of their meeting, the two agreed to both do the best possible to procure two more seats for the Joint List and Kahol Lavan each, and then, with the Joint List’s support, Kachol Lavan would make Netanyahu and his right wing allies Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennet history.
The meeting was proof something crucial about Israel’s upcoming election, its third in a year: The only difference between the two politicians vying for Israel’s prime ministership is Ayman Odeh.
As Israel’s third election commences on Monday, there’s an understandable fatigue and indifference suffusing Israeli and Palestinian communities alike. Skepticism is growing among Israelis about the potential of Monday’s ballot to end the political deadlock, while Palestinians see no hope in either of the competing blocks; dehumanizing us and depriving us of even more rights has once more been a unifying theme for all mainstream candidates.
Annexation of at least 30% of the West Bank has been promised by both main contenders, Netanyahu and Gantz. Of course, this would not only be detrimental to Palestinians but to Israel’s security and future as well; it would irrevocably kill the peace process and critically endanger Israel’s enduring peace with Jordan, where the latter has been effectively protecting Israel’s eastern borders for decades. It would also spell the end of security collaboration between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, an apparatus that protects the lives of countless Israelis. And it would revive support for violence, extremism and militarism while at the same time doubling Israel’s border with Jordan and the occupied territories, requiring twice as many Israeli troops to patrol Israel’s new borders.
The similarities don’t end there. Both Netanyahu and Gantz endorsed President Trump’s peace plan. And while Netanyahu’s rhetoric is more avowedly racist, it’s hard for us to forget that Gantz opened his campaign with a tally of how many Palestinian deaths he’d presided over.
With Gantz careening towards the Israeli center right, the two candidates to lead the government are nearly indistinguishable.
There is one hope, though: If Israeli voters choose to back the Joint List, whose leader, Odeh, has called for peace, social justice and equality. Large turnout for the Joint List has the potential to bring Gantz to his senses and prevent disaster. While Netanyahu is a lost cause whose future premiership will be guided by his survival instincts, even if it critically endangers the future of everyone trapped in this conflict, the same cannot be said for Gantz.
Though he’s recently indulged the dangerous whims of Israel’s right, Gantz remains far more reasonable, at least, in comparison with Bibi. People who know Gantz intimately have told me that as opposed to Netanyahu, he can be reasoned with; he makes decisions collectively and listens to the people around him.
It’s now up to Israeli voters to decide who would be the people around Gantz — a racist like Avigdor Lieberman or a moderate like Ayman Odeh.
And it’s obvious what the best answer is for us Palestinians, for human rights in general, and for Israel, too: Gantz’s premiership should be contingent upon Arab support to guarantee progress in the peace process and a move away from the disaster presented by the possibility of annexation.
The more Israeli voters support and empower the Joint List, the more it will be difficult for Gantz to ignore Arabs and Palestinians, and the closer we will be to finding a genuine solution to the conflict rather than what has been a pattern of sweeping an inherently destabilizing reality under the carpet.
Muhammad Shehada is a contributing columnist for the Forward.