On September 17, 2019, the second Israeli election inside of a year failed to produce a coalition government. But September’s vote did yield something historic. Ayman Odeh, the chair of the only Arab party in the Knesset, announced five days after the snap election that his party would endorse Benny Gantz, the chair of the most prominent centrist party, in his effort to form a government. No Arab Israeli leader had endorsed an Israeli prime minister since the time of Yitzhak Rabin in the early 1990s.

The endorsement did not come as a total surprise, however. Since 2015, when he became head of the big-tent party known as the Joint List, Odeh has pressed for establishing a democratic Arab and Jewish bloc that could displace the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A Gantz government, Odeh imagined, would return to negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and adopt policies that take into consideration the needs of Arab citizens in Israel.

Odeh’s logic reflected a change in the thinking of much of his constituency. Arab Israelis once embraced a politics of protest, pressing their concerns on the Israeli government from outside. But in recent years, the stakes of Netanyahu’s continued rule have driven Arab Israelis to seek to exercise influence inside the system instead. The Joint List’s endorsement reflects this transformation of tactics.

If the new approach turns out to be successful, Odeh’s endorsement will hold out the possibility of fundamental change in the Israeli political system—toward one that treats Arabs as legitimate partners in power, accepts their demands for equitable distribution of resources, and reaches a lasting peace with the Palestinians. To achieve that outcome, however, both the Joint List and its partners will need to embrace change. None of the Joint List’s four factions—Hadash, Taal, Balad, and the Islamic Movement—has ever before been part of a governing coalition. Odeh must unify his party and shore up its vision if he is to transform it from a party focused on protest to one that fights for influence. Moreover, the Israeli center and left must accept the Arabs as legitimate coalition partners. Otherwise, Odeh’s endorsement will be just another political exercise.

SEARCHING FOR A STRATEGY

Back in 1992, Arab parties supported Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and by sustaining his government helped secure popular support for the 1993 Oslo accords, in which Israel recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization as the representative body of Palestinians. The Rabin government further agreed to end Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and it pledged to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Odeh cannot hope to get anything close to these commitments from a government headed by Benny Gantz. In discussions with the Joint List, Gantz largely refused to address the group’s priorities. These included territorial changes, equal rights for all citizens regardless of religion, abolition of discriminatory practices, and a fair and workable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Once Odeh defines a vision, he will need to sell it to his party.

Odeh has yet to clarify exactly what he envisions getting out of the relationship he has entered. And once he defines a vision, he will need to sell it to his party, which is by no means united in support of his decision. Many within Odeh’s own faction of the Joint List, Hadash, opposed endorsing Gantz. Some Knesset members from Hadash and Taal favored the move, but members from Balad refused to support any candidate for prime minister at all. The last faction, the Islamic Movement, backed Netanyahu in exchange for resources for the Arab public. Odeh will have a hard time producing a change of government with such a fractious party only partially behind him.

Clarity of vision will be crucial to bringing the Joint List behind him. But Odeh will ultimately need a strategy for transforming the way the party functions. Currently, each of the four constituent parties makes its own decisions. This internal autonomy weakens the Joint List’s ability to present a united front. Odeh should insist that the party make critical decisions by majority vote. Only then can the Joint List begin to speak with one voice and, in turn, push for influence.

RELUCTANT PARTNERS

Ultimately, for Arabs to become full partners in a coalition government, Israeli Jewish parties must accept them. But like their counterparts on the right, Israeli center and left parties harbor anti-Arab sentiments. Arab Israelis “identify with the worst of our enemies,” the centrist politician Yair Lapid asserted in December 2019. Such prejudices underlie the unwillingness of Israeli Jewish parties to accept Arabs as partners in governing a “Jewish state”—an enterprise that includes making decisions on issues of full equality for Arabs and seeking an end to the conflict with Palestinians.

Gantz’s response to his Joint List endorsement illustrated this problem. He complained that the endorsement actually hurt his party’s chances of forming a new coalition. Gantz refused to negotiate with the representatives of the Joint List and accept them as partners in a coalition, even though their demands were modest: to create a program to combat violence in the Arab community, stop the demolition of houses in Arab localities, support equality for all citizens, and negotiate peace with Palestinian leaders. Gantz turned instead to form a coalition with the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu and Likud parties, noting that more Knesset members had endorsed his candidacy than that of Netanyahu—his edge, of course, having come from the Joint List, which he so cavalierly discounted. To his mind, Gantz made clear, the Joint List was not a legitimate power and could not help establish a government.

Gantz in Jerusalem, Israel, November 2019
Gantz in Jerusalem, Israel, November 2019
Amir Cohen / Reuters

Sidelining the Joint List will hurt the Israeli center in the long run, because it cannot form a coalition without Arab votes in the Knesset. And the bloc could easily lose those votes if Arab Israelis give up the politics of influence as fruitless and return to the politics of protest. After the cold-shoulder response to Odeh’s endorsement, for instance, Arab Israelis may consider withdrawing from Israeli parliamentary politics and creating extraparliamentary channels, say, by electing a separate Arab leadership body outside the Knesset to press their demands for equality and peace.

As Israel approaches another election in March, Odeh is a long way from effectuating real political change. His vision remains unarticulated, his party is fragmented, and the partners he sought have rebuffed him. But the moment still offers opportunities. Rather than join forces with the Israeli center and risk being marginalized, Odeh should stand his ground in opposition. He should consolidate the Joint List and, if possible, unite with the Jewish left to advocate a competing agenda that prioritizes equality for all Israelis. By strengthening the left, Odeh can pressure a centrist coalition to consider the concerns of Arab Israelis and thereby truly transform the Joint List into a party of influence.

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