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Ayman Odeh can transform Israel: Who will be his partner?

Arab Israelis will vote in droves if they know their candidates will finally step out onto the political center stage
Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab Joint List, outside a court hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on right-wing petitions asking to disqualify his party from running in the September elections, on August 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab Joint List, outside a court hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on right-wing petitions asking to disqualify his party from running in the September elections, on August 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

For four years now we have been waiting for Ayman Odeh. We have been waiting for the head of the Joint List, a potentially game-changing alliance of all four Arab parties, to dare. Waiting for him to lead. We have been waiting for him to fulfill his unique potential and become the leader who transforms politics in Israel. For the past four years he has danced the Yemenite Step, one step forward and two steps backwards. Over and over he looked at the “Zionist parties” with suspicion and declared there was no partner. Now, he is looking at his people, the Arab-Palestinian people of Israel, and finally, finally, he is connecting with their clear collective will to move from the politics of protest to a politics of influence.

In the past two years, studies and surveys have repeatedly shown that more than 60 percent of Arab citizens of Israel want the party they vote for to be in a governing coalition. They want to be partners in decision-making about their own future. In the last elections however, they also decided, for the most part, not to vote. Why vote for leaders who you know will opt to stay on the sidelines regardless of electoral success? They stayed home and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rubbed his hands with glee. The plan was working: Netanyahu would make Israeli democracy unattractive, and Arabs would not want to participate in it. The result is that the right wing continue to run the country, helped directly and indirectly by Arab leaders’ policy of shunning membership in the government.

The data are clear, when voting levels in the Arab community reach those of Jewish society in general elections, the government of the right will fall.

It’s about time Ayman Odeh began the journey he was meant for – to bring his constituents into the government, to lead them to active, influential citizenship, to transform 20 percent of Israeli citizens into a determining factor in what is happening in our shared nation. This will not be easy. Odeh’s outstretched hand has already been rejected, immediately and predictably, by both Arabs and Jews. The real question remains; can any partners be found for Ayman Odeh?

The partners need to come from both societies. On the Jewish side, Meretz and the Democratic Camp must declare “We are your partners.” Not by merely adding one more Arab on a Jewish list. There must be a commitment to a joint and equal list that will be built starting the day after the elections. But this is not enough; Meretz must issue an announcement that in any coalition negotiations they will demand there be integration of the political representatives of Arab society in the government. On the Arab side, MK Ahmad Tibi and Hadash must change the way they view their participation.

Ayman Odeh is walking a path paved by Arab Knesset members Tawfiq Ziad, Tawfik Toubi, and Emile Habibi before him. Without the Arab parties Yitzhak Rabin would not have been able to form a government, to change the attitude toward Arab society, or to enter peace agreements. Ayman Odeh’s recent declaration that he would be willing to consider joining a governing coalition was received with great enthusiasm in Arab society because he is responding to what the public is asking for. I hope and expect a change in the attitude of their leaders, from the High Follow-Up Committee through the heads of local authorities and on to the Knesset members from Hadash and Taal.

The younger generation of Arab society is integrated in Israeli society, in medicine and in education, in law and in human services, in high-tech and in industry. The contradiction of economic and employment partnerships while still being second class citizens is no longer acceptable to them.

The question remains; will Ayman Odeh’s ideas be immediately rejected by Jewish and Arab politicians alike, with Arabs again staying home on election day, or will the required changes in the attitudes of Arab voters and Jewish-led parties happen in time to dramatically influence the results of the upcoming elections?

About the Author
Yaniv Sagee is the CEO of the Center for a Shared Society at Givat Haviva.
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