Israel's Knesset is at war with its Arab members

Khaled Diab writes how the Knesset has passed a law that deliberately targets its Arab members

Ayman Odeh, the head of the coalition of Arab-dominated parties in the Knesset known as the Joint List, said: “Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want Arabs to vote; he doesn’t want us to be a legitimate political force.” Ahmad Gharabli / AFP
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In a move billed as defending democracy but actually undermining and compromising it, Israel’s Knesset has passed a law that would enable parliamentarians to gang up on another member and expel him or her, ignoring the will of the electorate.

Critics have described the new legislation as threatening the “very building blocks of democracy” and encouraging the “tyranny of the majority”.

The new legislation allows Knesset members to act as judge and jury in cases where they perceive that a fellow parliamentarian has incited violence or racism, supported armed conflict against Israel, or rejected Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Although many on the ultranationalist and religious right express racist views and incite against Palestinians, the wording and timing of the new law is seen by politicians across the spectrum and human rights groups as expressly targeting Arab Knesset members.

Adalah, a legal centre representing Israel’s Arab minority, described the Expulsion Law as “the latest expression in a disturbing national tendency over the past several years intended, via varying means, to silence the Arab public”.

Ayman Odeh, the popular and widely respected head of the coalition of Arab-dominated parties in the Knesset known as the Joint List, did not mince his words. “[Prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu doesn’t want Arabs to vote; he doesn’t want us to be a legitimate political force,” Mr Odeh said. “That’s why he systematically incites against the Arab public and against its elected officials.”

Not long before the vote, I visited Mr Odeh in his office at the Knesset.

When he greeted me, the charismatic leader who in 2015 led the Joint List to the most significant victory ever scored by an Arab parties, looked weary and troubled. Asking me to excuse his state, he said that he’d been working very long hours on a number of important matters.

One of the issues preying on his mind must have been the concerted effort by the far-right ruling coalition to find a mechanism for removing the “rabble-rousers” among the Arab representatives, especially the Palestinian nationalist Balad party’s Haneen Zoabi.

“Our presence here [in the Knesset] is a daily challenge to the racists who want a Jewish-only state,” Mr Odeh told me. “Our enemies want us to isolate ourselves and not to participate. This is what Netanyahu wants. He wants a pure Jewish state.”

The entire idea behind the Joint List – which is an unlikely alliance of secularist, Arab-Jewish leftist, nationalist and Islamist parties – was to challenge previous attempts to isolate and marginalise Palestinian-Israeli voters and their representatives, including the controversial law raising the threshold for Knesset entry.

And the Joint List was spectacularly successful in this regard. By joining forces, the Arab parties managed to become the third-largest bloc in the Knesset, even though Mr Netanyahu maintained his grip on power and cobbled together an ultranationalist ruling coalition.

“During the elections, we achieved three unprecedented accomplishments: 88 per cent of our people voted for us, we became the third power [and we won] 13 seats,” Mr Odeh said.

With the Israeli left in disarray, the Joint List has found itself not only playing the role as the main line of defence against the right wing campaign to further sideline Palestinians in Israel. To salvage the prospects for peace, it is also one of the last bastions defending Israeli democracy against an authoritarian rightist takeover.

Although Mr Odeh is a veteran of local politics in his hometown, Haifa, he has been dropped in at the deep end during his first term at the Knesset. But his charisma, political adeptness and fresh, inclusive discourse has meant that this baptism by fire is redefining Israeli politics and helping to rewrite the rule book of Israel-Palestinian engagement.

Long a member of the leftist Jewish-Arab Hadash party, which he now heads, Mr Odeh is committed to cooperation with sympathetic Israeli Jews and in engaging with Israeli mainstream society. “We reject the equation that it is all Jews against all Arabs, or all Arabs against all Jews,” he emphasised. “This is a joint struggle between Arab and Jewish democrats against racist policies.”

This has worked to the Joint List’s advantage and Mr Odeh has become something of a sensation among progressive and liberal Israelis.

“We have opened up new horizons and extended bridges to segments of Jewish society, to challenge Netanyahu’s government,” he said. “I can say confidently that the Jewish public has debated the status of Arab citizens this past year more than at any time since 1948.”

Although Mr Odeh’s idea for a 10-year programme to develop Arab areas of Israel forced the government to unveil a five-year, $3.9 billion (Dh14bn) development plan for these underprivileged areas, other concrete successes are few and far between.

The march of the far-right seems, for the time being, unstoppable and the peace process is in tatters. But in the longer term, he believes that equality and peace are both achievable. “Nobody is saying that our struggle is easy or that life is easy,” Mr Odeh admits openly. “This struggle, which proposes a democratic alternative and is made up of both Arabs and Jews, will ultimately be the victorious one.”

Khaled Diab is a Belgian-­Egyptian journalist