After Israel’s Sept. 17 election ended in political deadlock, a top lawmaker from an Arab-dominated political party this week became the first since 1992 to endorse an Israeli candidate for prime minister.
For the past 25 years, Israeli Arab party leaders have declined to endorse a Prime Ministerial candidate in Israel’s coalition-dependent system. But Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, an alliance of Israel’s four Arab-dominated parties, recommended centrist candidate Benny Gantz be given the mandate on Sept. 22. His party, Blue and White, won 33 parliamentary seats, one more than Netanyahu’s right wing Likud, which finished on 32. With 13 seats, the Joint List became the third-largest party in Israel’s parliament.
“We will be the cornerstone of democracy,” Odeh wrote in an OpEd published in the New York Times. “Arab Palestinian citizens cannot change the course of Israel alone, but change is impossible without us.” Odeh added that although he was endorsing Gantz for prime minister, he would not join him in a coalition.
Despite the historic recommendation, the withdrawal of three Joint List lawmakers left Gantz with just 54 endorsements, compared to 55 for Netanyahu. Late on Wednesday, after fresh talks on forming a Blue and White–Likud unity government broke down, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin gave Netanyahu the first crack at forming a coalition.
He faces an uphill struggle. Blue and White has refused to sit in a coalition led by Netanyahu, who faces a pre-trial hearing next week on corruption allegations. Meanwhile, secular nationalist party leader Avigdor Lieberman has declined to recommend either Netanyahu or Gantz for prime minister. With no guarantee Rivlin will give Gantz the mandate should Netanyahu fail, Israel remains mired in political uncertainty, and a third election can’t be ruled out.
In a recent interview translated from Hebrew and edited for length and clarity, Odeh talked with TIME about his historic decision, why Arab Israeli turnout rose to above 60% in September, and why a top Blue and White lawmaker urged the Joint List to withhold some nominations for Gantz.
An Israeli Arab-dominated party has not backed a Zionist candidate for Prime Minister since 1992. How much did the Nation-State Law, which enshrines the right of national self determination as “unique to the Jewish people”, and Netanyahu’s subsequent statement that Israel is not a country for “all its citizens” play into your decision to break with tradition?
That’s an important question. The Nation-State law, and also the incitement that was really extreme under Netanyahu was a very important part of the decision to make the recommendation. But it’s not only that we were looking at the past, we were also looking to the future with President Trump’s “Deal of the Century” and the potential for annexation that would end prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. This is a main factor in why we are saying no to Netanyahu.
After the president asked Netanyahu to form a government, you said that a top Blue and White lawmaker had urged three Joint List members not to endorse Gantz, ensuring that Netanyahu gets to try first. What was the strategy behind that?
There were some lawmakers in Blue and White that preferred Netanyahu to have the first attempt at forming a government. Their thinking is that he will fail and then there will be a lot of public pressure, so they will have a greater chance of forming a government if they go second. But there was no coordination between Blue and White’s strategy and Balad, the Joint List party whose three elected members abstained from recommending a Prime Minister. Balad was opposed to the endorsement in principal. Personally, I’m against the tactic of Blue and White and Balad in this matter. I was in favor of all 13 of our party members endorsing Gantz for prime minister. Not because he was the right candidate to represent our interests, but because this is the only chance for us to get rid of Netanyahu. We also wanted to send a message to the Prime Minister that after his incitement against us, we will be the ones to put him down.
A recent IDI Poll showed that 58% of the Israeli Arab public believes its political leadership “does not do a good job in representing the Arab community”, up from 41% in 2017. At the same time, Arab voter turnout rose from about 50% in April to above 60% in September. How do you explain these two trends?
Netanyahu succeeded in sowing despair among a huge part of our public. This was the environment in the Arab public for a long time, months before the election. But then we started to talk about how to repair the situation politically and why we have to stand up to incitement and be a part of Israel’s politics. Regarding the high voter turnout the first factor is our unity: the fact the Joint List became one party again [the four parties ran separately in Israel’s April elections.] It’s not only Netanyahu’s incitement that bought Arabs to the polls, it’s the fact that we put ourselves head to head with the prime minister and showed that it’s us or him. In parliament, for example, I put a camera on Netanyahu [after he had set up cameras in polling stations in Arab areas]. I wanted to say it’s me in front of you.
How do you respond to critics who say that by endorsing a Zionist leader you are selling out Palestinians?
The main purpose of what we did was preventing Netanyahu from making the Deal of the Century with Trump, which would end all possibilities for peace. We also want to prevent Netanyahu from forming a government with [the hard right] Yamina Party and annexing the Occupied Territories. But together with that there are the daily life rights [of Israel’s Arab citizens] to consider. We’re not a party of big words, we’re also a party that looks to deliver change.
You wrote in the New York Times that you won’t sit in a coalition with Blue and White because of Gantz’s refusal to meet your demands. What mechanisms are there for you to advance those demands outside of a coalition?
We don’t have the privilege of the 1990s when there were strategies and policies towards creating peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now the options are between annexation and managing the situation; making peace is not part of Gantz’s ideology. Every government will be bad but we want to prevent the worst. In the 1990s, we had an important role as a bloc outside the government that allows it to continue to rule as a minority government, and we were able to promote equality and steps towards peace. We want to reconstruct that experience. The problem right now is that Blue and White is still very far from showing the courage that [assassinated former Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin showed in those days.
Should Gantz end up heading a unity government, do you think he will make things any better for Israeli Arabs?
On the Nation State bill, I don’t think he has the courage to make a change. It’s a bill that maybe he doesn’t agree with, but it’s very hard to replace. It’s similar to the way the right wing doesn’t agree with the Oslo Accords but they can’t replace it. You need ideology, courage, and right now Gantz doesn’t have that. But if we’re talking about crime in the Arab communities and other issues we’ve discussed there’s a civil way we can make some steps forward.
Analysts say that despite Netanyahu’s incitement against Israeli Arabs, Likud policies have been generous in directing economic resources to Arab communities, for example, new initiatives to improve police services. Do you agree with that?
We have struggled to bring economic improvements to Arab councils. When we submitted the proposal for improvement to Arab councils, Netanyahu first rejected it three times, so it was a hard struggle that we undertook to get our economic rights. The other thing to note is that Netanyahu has always promoted the idea of economic peace: in the occupied territories and for Arabs inside Israel [Palestinians in the occupied territories are not eligible to vote for Israel’s Prime Minister].
But in his equation economic improvement comes at the expense of national rights. It’s a racist approach because it sees us not as a people but a group of consumers… Netanyahu was the most anti-democratic threat to the Arab population since Israel was under martial law in the 1950s.
What’s your preferred outcome from these negotiations? What do you think will happen?
The truth is that no one can say for sure. But I think and hope that Netanyahu will fail. And then there will be public pressure and pressure from the parties, and they will have to go with Gantz. The main thing for us is that Netanyahu will not continue as prime minister.