MK Ayman Odeh — Israel’s Choice: Solidarity or Racist Extremism

The New York Times published the following op-ed piece by MK Ayman Odeh last Friday, March 8, 2019. MK Odeh leads the Joint List, the third-largest bloc in the Knesset, and is chairman of the Hadash-Ta’al list in the upcoming elections.

I was sitting in my family’s home in Haifa in 1984 when I watched a man who had just won a seat in the Knesset appear on television. In American-accented Hebrew, he reiterated the cornerstone of his campaign platform: All Arabs must be expelled from the land — by force, if necessary. In its televised campaign advertisement, his party had declared, “In the name of God and Israel, the Arabs must go.” I was 9 years old, Palestinian, Arab and a citizen of Israel. This man, Meir Kahane, wanted me gone.

The racist Meir Kahane addressing a demonstration in Holon, just south of Tel Aviv

The racist Meir Kahane addressing a demonstration in Holon, just south of Tel Aviv (Photo: Gil Hadani / The National Library of Israel)

Thirty-five years later, I am still here. Mr. Kahane’s party was banned by Israel’s High Court in 1988 and declared a terrorist organization in 1994. And I lead the Hadash Party and, for the past four years, the Joint List, representing Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Knesset. Mr. Kahane’s adherents are still here, too, but no party that so explicitly pledges allegiance to his vision has made a successful bid for the Knesset since.

That looks like it will change this year.

On Feb. 20, I sat with my 10-year-old son, Tayeb, in our family home in Haifa as we watched news reports that a new Kahanist party called Jewish Power, which advocates ethnic cleansing throughout the country and whose leader, in 2012, openly called for the erasure of Gaza, had incorporated and joined with two other extremist political parties to run in the general election on April 9. It seems very likely that they’ll take seats as members of the next Knesset.

In 1984, even right-wing members of Knesset left the room when Mr. Kahane stood to speak. The prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Shamir of the right-wing Likud Party, said he would absolutely refuse to allow Mr. Kahane into his coalition, even if it cost him the government. Now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is opening the doors of the Knesset and welcoming the Kahanists inside.

Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Mr. Netanyahu’s rule over his decade in office has been increasingly racist. Last year he enacted the Nation-State Law, which legalized certain forms of racial discrimination and officially transformed the Arab population in Israel into second-class citizens. He’s perfectly willing to embrace violent and radical extremists — including anti-Semitic right-wing authoritarians like Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary — as long as they appear to support his unrepentant aggression and indefinite occupation of the West Bank.

Moreover, Mr. Netanyahu needs every extremist vote he can get to stay in office. He enters the elections with charges of fraud, bribery and breach of public trust hanging over his head. He faces a new, serious challenge from the center. He’s willing to go to any length to maintain control of the government: demonizing Arabs, branding the media as the enemy of the people, and even relying on Kahanists to win a majority.

If we are to defeat this dangerous alliance, we must provide a clear alternative. The only way for the left to prevail is to choose solidarity and the shared Jewish-Arab struggle for peace, equality and democracy.

Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel represent 20 percent of the population. We cannot change the course of the country alone. But there is no electoral math that leads to victory for a center-left-wing coalition without the participation of the Arab parties. The center-left parties vying to unseat Mr. Netanyahu surely understand this math. Yet they stubbornly insist that a coalition government cannot rely on Arab parties, or the people we represent.

This hasn’t always been the case. In the 1990s, support from parties representing Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel saved the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin from collapse. While they didn’t officially join the coalition, two Arab and Arab-Jewish parties created an outside bloc that allowed Rabin to remain prime minister in exchange for an unprecedented role in policymaking. This was one of the most effective periods in the history of Arab parties in the Knesset. They were able to help bring about real gains for Palestinian citizens of Israel, including recognition and incorporation of villages in the Galilee, preventing the Israeli government from confiscating Palestinian lands in Jerusalem, and boosting budgets to Arab municipalities.

This was also the most significant period for the peace process. Parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel played an important role at a time when the government was negotiating Israel’s recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization in return for Palestinian recognition of the existence of the State of Israel, signing the Oslo accords and exiting Gaza and Jericho.

These political and policy achievements are significant enough on their own, but Arab participation also contributed to and coincided with a culture very different from today’s. I remember the period of the Oslo Accords as a time of great hope, with a feeling of peace in the air. It brought us closer, Arabs and Jews, and made us all, for a brief moment, feel as though we belonged. We weren’t able to end the occupation and create full equality on our own. But for the first time, we were a political force that could not be ignored.

Since that time, Mr. Netanyahu and his allies on the right have understood that Palestinian citizens of Israel will be part of the solution, so they have chosen to make us the problem. In this election, like in the Rabin years, a center-left coalition cannot capture enough seats to form a government without Arab parties’ support.

No one understands this better than Mr. Netanyahu, which is why he is doing everything he can to make the case that a legitimate government cannot depend on Arabs. Indeed, one of his favorite talking points against his biggest challengers, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, is that their government will include parties that represent Arabs.

But instead of challenging this racist and fundamentally anti-democratic notion, center-left parties have reinforced it. Mr. Lapid has promised, “We won’t form a government with the Arab parties.” Even Avi Gabbay of the Labor Party, when he became party leader in 2017, declared definitively, “We will not share a government with the Joint List, period.”

This is politically foolish. But equally important, it misses the great opportunity to model the shared future we want for our children. If the center-left parties believe Palestinian citizens of Israel have a place in this country, they must accept that we have a place in its politics. We cannot build a shared future if we are relegated to the back seats of the Knesset chamber. Only a diverse and principled left-wing bloc will have the political power and moral might to create a real alternative in this country.