Israeli Arab lawmaker Ayman Odeh to Gantz: Accept us into government
Joint List leader Ayman Odeh at a meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019. | Menahem Kahana / Pool via AP

WASHINGTON—Declaring “history has its eyes on us,” the top politician among Israeli Arabs is challenging former Gen. Benny Gantz, the opposition leader who hopes to become Israel’s new Prime Minister, to openly accept the Israeli Arab parties into a government there.

And when Gantz does, says Israeli Knesset (parliament) Member Ayman Odeh, it will be a critical move echoing the conciliation of the 1993 Oslo Accords which brought a seven-year halt in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I’m calling on Benny Gantz to be brave, just like Yitzhak Rabin was in 1993,” said Odeh, leader of the 13-member Joint List, an electoral coalition made up of the Israeli Communist Party and other mostly Arab parties. Rabin signed Oslo with then-Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.

But it’s not just Gantz who must respond to the challenge, Odeh warned. Israel’s leftist parties omitted Israeli Arab Knesset members from past governing coalitions because other coalition party partners refused to serve with the Israeli Arab lawmakers. That exclusion must end, Odeh said.

“It is time for the center-left parties to understand that if they believe we” Israeli Arabs “have a place in this country, then we must have a place in its politics. We are not going anywhere,” he stated.

Whether Gantz and the progressive parties will listen to Odeh and the Joint List is another matter.

Odeh, a former Haifa city council member, leads the third-largest Knesset bloc, holding 13 seats in the 120-member body. No party by itself is close to a majority. The Joint List is also potentially key to putting together a left-wing coalition to oust long-time right-wing, racist, and anti-Arab—including anti-Israeli Arab—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s Likud Party, like the man himself, is racist and xenophobic, speakers at the J Street conference in Washington said on Oct. 28. J Street is the growing progressive Jewish organizational counterweight to the notorious right-wing American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). AIPAC is pro-Likud, pro-Netanyahu, pro-GOP—and pro-Donald Trump.

Odeh used his remarks to J Street to challenge Gantz to change old views. And he reminded Gantz that nine of the Joint List’s 13 members, plus himself, could give Gantz, who is moderate-conservative—but not overtly racist like Netanyahu—the edge that Gantz’s Blue and White Party needs to assemble a 61-member majority.

Blue and White won 33 seats in the last Knesset election last month, Likud won 32, and the Joint List won 13. Israeli’s other left, right, and Orthodox Jewish-based parties were all in single digits.

“Just a few weeks ago, we (Israeli) Arab citizens chose to reject Netanyahu’s politics of fear and hate,” Odeh told the 4,000-person J Street conference in D.C. “Together with nine of my (Joint List) colleagues, we chose to end Netanyahu’s politics that makes me, and 20% of our population, second-class citizens.”

Netanyahu did that by using his former majority to jam the Israeli Jewish nation-state bill through the Knesset in 2018. Some provisions, in its opening paragraphs, were uncontroversial. The rest was incendiary.

The bill made Hebrew Israel’s only official language, axing English, Arabic, and, unofficially, Russian.

Most importantly, it stripped the Israeli Arab population of some rights all Israelis enjoyed.

That law says “the right to national self-determination is unique to the Jewish people,” denying it to everyone else, including all other religious minorities: Israeli Arabs and Arab Christians, the Druze, and Israeli Christians. One of Netanyahu’s Cabinet ministers later bluntly said equal rights apply only to Jews.

The law, along with other Netanyahu policies and politics outrage J Street members and most non-Orthodox U.S. Jews. Netanyahu’s offenses range from pro-Orthodox religious extremist control of schools, marriage, and divorce to the prime minister’s own corruption, and, most importantly, right-wing “settlements” on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Trump’s blank check support of Netanyahu and the Israeli right wing also come in for condemnation.

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By contrast, the Joint List has a civil rights program it wants Gantz and his Blue and White Coalition to push. Odeh said its top points include repeal of Netanyahu’s nationalist law and the resumption of negotiations to establish an independent Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders. That was the year Israel expanded its territory into Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jersualem from Egypt and Jordan in the Six-Day War.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh speaks with Sen. Bernie Sanders at the J Street conference in Washington. | Ayman Odeh via Twitter

By contrast, Netanyahu wants to expand settlements beyond the 1967 borders permanently—so much so that the proposed Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza would be a series of disconnected apartheid-like slabs of land.

“Israel cannot be a true and just democracy so long as it occupies another people,” said Odeh. “The occupation is a Palestinian tragedy and also an Israeli prison. We must liberate both peoples,” Odeh declared.

  • Reducing “the crisis of crime” in Israeli Arab cities and towns. Odeh says 77 Israeli Arabs have been murdered since the start of this year in those municipalities – and the “solution rate” of such murders of Israeli Arabs is only half of that when Israeli Jews are murdered.
  • “Legally incorporating those Arab villages” so they can get municipal services – water, electricity, schools – on the same level as Israeli cities and towns. Ssys Odeh: “We need to create the same access to resources as our Jewish neighbors have.”
  • Prevention of violence against women, especially Arab women.

“Equality, peace and social justice can only make life better for all of us,” Odeh said.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.