Israel’s Top Arab Politician: Gantz’s Party Wanted to Treat Us Like a Mistress

Ayman Odeh, the chairman of the Joint List of Arab parties, is one of the few Israeli politicians expected to benefit from the third Knesset election within a year. The Joint List is gaining strength, and Odeh is enjoying great popularity. It’s hard to walk down the street in Haifa without both Arabs and Jews hugging and kissing him – at least those who don’t call him a terrorist, of course.

This warm reception is partly the result of Odeh’s personal charm, but it also stems from his recent political moves. He recommended to President Reuven Rivlin that Kahol Lavan chief Benny Gantz form the next government, and he has shown a willingness to be part of the bloc to prevent Benjamin Netanyahu from remaining prime minister.

According to Dov Khenin, a former MK from the Joint List's Arab-Jewish Hadash party that Odeh also leads, “Ayman is a leader who marches at the front of the camp but keeps in touch with his community. He has the courage to move ahead without putting his toe in the water first to check the temperature; he strives so that his constituency will really follow him.”

Still, Odeh’s feet are also encumbered by heavy weights, starting with the difficulty of joining an Israeli government – one that would continue the occupation and maybe go to war in Gaza. There’s also the embarrassment over how to talk out about the failure of Arab nationalism in the region. So his maneuver room is the narrowest for any Israeli political leader – despite his charm and courage.

As a result, he has to choose easier targets. The first is to help forge a governing coalition of 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats – without Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. “It’s not a miracle, it’s realistic,” Odeh says. “We need two more MKs for us and two for Kahol Lavan. That’s it. We’ll produce our seats – my job is to raise voter turnout in the Arab community from 60 percent to 65 percent.”

Will you recommend Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz for prime minister again?

“Our recommendation was technical, with the main recommendation being not Netanyahu. Gantz can turn our technical recommendation into a fundamental one if his approach is that of the Rabin government in the ‘90s. In such a case, we’ll act the way we acted then and we’ll be a bloc” to prevent Netanyahu from remaining prime minister.