by: Connie Hackbarth
A political uproar resulted after Knesset member Ayman Odeh, chairperson of the Joint List, expressed willingness to enter a centre-left government coalition following the upcoming September 17 national elections in Israel.
In an interview with Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot and later via Facebook, Odeh, head of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, commonly known by its Hebrew acronym Hadash, cited conditions that would pave the way for such a government. These include negotiations to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state; revocation of the Nation State Law; a change in discriminatory planning and building laws; and support for social services including construction of the first Arab city, university and public hospital.
Knesset Member Yair Lapid, number two on the Blue and White list, expected to be the second largest Knesset faction behind Likud following the upcoming elections, was quick to respond. “To say…’we will sit with them in the government’ while partnering with Balad, which is a gang of Israel haters who don’t recognize the Jewish state, is unacceptable double talk,” Lapid stated, referring to the National Democratic Assembly faction of the Joint List. Lapid subsequently noted that while Israel’s 1.89 million Palestinian citizens “have real problems”, he added that these problems are not being addressed partially due to the “dreadful political representation” of Palestinian citizens.”
The Likud didn’t lag behind, wielding this interview as a tool to paint Blue and White as a bastion of left-wing politics and a potential partner with Palestinians, the ultimate curses in Israeli public discourse.
“We succeeded in waking up the election campaign and proving that Arab society is a central and influential player which can determine the political and media agenda,” declared Odeh this morning on his Facebook page. “It is excellent that we are those initiating and not only reacting. Let them react to us.”
Negative responses to Odeh’s statements, however, were not limited to the Zionist parties. Odeh reportedly failed to consult with or even inform his Joint List partners, leaving them to publicly scramble in the face of such a strategic statement.
The head of the National Democratic Assembly and number two on the Joint List, Dr. Mtanes Shehadeh, rejected Odeh’s statements outright. “I recommend that Ayman doesn’t chase after a dream and satisfy the Israeli left”. He stated this is the personal position of Odeh, claiming he believes it does not even represent Hadash.
Dr. Ahmad Tibi, the head of the Arab Movement for Change, noted that “entering the coalition now is a non-existent utopia that is not on the agenda.” “I will not be a member of Gant's 'government of generals' of Gantz, Ya'alon and Ashkenazi” Tibi told Yaakov Ayalon in an interview on Israel’s Channel 13 News. “It seems that the 'occupation' won't end after the elections, and therefore this is a utopian scenario, which aims to make a statement and express that we want to have more influence on the political system."
The Joint List is a fragile coalition of four parties painstakingly pieced back together this summer after its dissolution prior to the April 2019 elections. The initial creation of the Joint List was a reaction to the 2014 increase in the election threshold from 2% to 3.5%, engineered by Israel’s government in order to suppress Palestinian representation, which had been divided amongst a number of small parties. Creation of the Joint List energized Palestinian citizens, nearly 64% of whom voted in the 2015 elections, and gave the list 13 of the 120 Knesset seats. Subsequent functioning of the Joint List, however, was marred by internal bickering and a reneging on previously agreed rotations within the group.
The breakup of the Joint List is considered to be the primary reason that Palestinian voting dropped almost 15%, plunging to under half in the April 2019 elections. This resulted in a loss of three seats in the short-lived Knesset. Further contributing to low voter turnout was frustration at their lack of political influence in the Knesset and anger over passing of the Nation State law.
Odeh’s statements are intended to rouse the drowsy election campaign with under a month to go and to mobilise voters. Palestinians have historically turned out when they feel their participation will have influence, such as in local elections, in which some 60% vote, and the 2015 national elections. It remains to be seen, however, whether Odeh’s statements will more than momentarily impact election discourse, and whether the Joint List can rise to the objective challenges of working together in the face of the Zionist parties’ unwillingness to see Israel’s Palestinian citizens as equal citizens and legitimate political partners.