Israel’s Arab leader Ayman Odeh rallies against vote boycott in bid to oust Netanyahu

Hadash chief is trying to persuade Palestinian citizens to vote for change instead of abstaining from election

Arab Israeli Knesset Member Ayman Odeh (L) speaks to the press as he stands next to the  head of the Arab Israeli Islamic Party's southern branch, Abbas Mansur, after a hearing at the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem on March 14, 2019, ahead of the upcoming general elections next month. - Arab parties represent the descendants of Palestinians who remained on their land when Israel was created in 1948 and constitute nearly a fifth of the country's population.
The Joint List has separated and now Hadash, the communist party headed by Ayman Odeh, is running with Ahmed Tibi's Taal. Nationalistic group Balad joined forces with Raam, which represents the southern branch of the Islamic Movement. (Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)
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Ayman Odeh is explaining to young activists at his party’s Nazareth headquarters the importance of “doing everything we can to bring down” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday.

If the Arab parties had won just two more Knesset seats three years ago, he says, they could have defeated the Netanyahu government’s bitterly controversial law defining Israel as the “nation state of the Jewish people”.

The country's Arab minority said the law officially turned them into second-class citizens.

Mr Odeh explains that abstention from the vote in 2019 is really a vote for Mr Netanyahu.

Persuading Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up 17 per cent of the electorate, to vote this week is preoccupying Mr Odeh, 44, leader of the left-wing, mainly Arab Hadash party.

On polling day in 2015, Mr Netanyahu notoriously warned his supporters that Arab voters were being bused in droves to the polling stations.

Mr Odeh uses that warning on a poster in which he and Ahmad Tibi (leader of the Ta’al party, fighting on a united platform with Hadash) stand in front of two buses calling on Arabs to vote “in droves” in 2019.

But will they? If Arab parties were to match the overall national turnout in 2015 of about 72 per cent, they could probably gain about 19 seats, blocking a Netanyahu victory.

However, some activists fear, as a private poll leaked to Israeli newspaper Haaretz suggests, that turnout among Palestinian citizens could drop from 63 per cent in 2015 to about 50 per cent this time.

One reason for the disillusionment is anger over the separation, because of various differences, of the Joint List that unified all four Arab parties in 2015. It was led by Mr Odeh.

The list became the third biggest Knesset faction with 13 seats, and helped him to secure a $2.75bn state grant to improve services and infrastructure in marginalised Arab communities.

The last poll on Friday predicted six seats for Hadash-Ta’al and four for the Balad-United Arab list.

But another factor behind boycott calls is what Mr Odeh calls Mr Netanyahu’s persistent anti-Arab incitement in the last parliament.

This culminated in the new Nation State Law, which omits the caveats about equality for all its citizens contained in Israel’s founding 1948 Declaration of Independence.

It downgrades Arabic as an official language and defines Jewish settlement as a “national value” in what critics see as approving Jewish-only communities, including in mainly Arab areas.

Mr Netanyahu responded last month to a complaint from celebrity model Rotem Sela by declaring: “Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, and not anyone else."

A day later, he said: “Arab citizens have 22 nation states around them and they do not need another."

Mr Odeh says: “If we put together all the insults towards the Arab population from all the prime ministers since 1948, they don’t add up to a quarter of the incitement by Netanyahu.”

And  while nobody expects Mr Netanyahu to court the Arab parties, the only alternative prime minister for now, Israel’s former military chief of staff Benny Gantz, says he will not do so either.

All of this has increased the sense of powerlessness among many Arab electors.

“I’m not going to vote,” says Ahmed, a Nazareth metal worker who voted for the Joint List last time.

“It’s not that the Arab parties don’t want to help but they can’t. Whether it's Netanyahu or the other one, it’s the same.”

Mr Odeh is determined to overcome this sentiment.

The election stakes are high. A victorious Mr Netanyahu could seek a coalition with Mr Gantz, even though the general has so far claimed he would not join such a government.

But he could form an administration with Israel’s most ultra-nationalist right-wing parties, pushing him to enact harsh measures, perhaps in return for protection against his pending corruption indictments.

These measures could include annexing parts of the West Bank, removing any last pretence that he would agree to a two-state solution.

On Saturday evening, Mr Netanyahu said for the first time that he was ready to begin the annexation.

Annexation supporters have been emboldened by Mr Trump’s latest gift to the Israeli right: US recognition of Israel’s “sovereignty” over the Golan Heights.

That area, like the West Bank, was seized by Israel in the 1967 War.

Mr Odeh describes Mr Trump's move as “the one who doesn’t have gives to the one who doesn’t deserve”.

So he has no time for the idea that voting is pointless.

Hadash grew from the old Israeli communist party – a portrait of Che Guevara still hangs in the party’s hall in Nazareth – and is now democratic socialist and socially progressive.

As the party’s leader, Mr Odeh supports a two-state solution, non-violence, and is “on fire to build the democratic camp among both Jews and Arabs in Israel”.

Hadash has no illusions about Mr Gantz.

“Gantz says he doesn’t want to work with us,” says feminist Hadash MP Aida Toumaa-Sliman. “He has many contradictions.

"He says he wants to be Rabin but he opened his campaign with ads showing how he bombed Gaza. He says he wants peace but he wants to stay in the Golan.”

Mr Odeh believes Mr Gantz will not do “anything revolutionary” in the foreseeable future.

He will consider recommending Mr Gantz as prime minister in the talks President Reuven Rivlin must have with all party leaders only if Mr Gantz promises to repeal the Nation State Law, install police stations to fight organised crime in Arab towns, and other action.

But for the long term, Mr Odeh remains positive, even about an eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Imagining two members of the French resistance hiding from Nazi troops in the Second World War, he says: “If one said that in 10 years France would be in a common market in Germany, the other would say he should go to a mental hospital.

"Yet that is what happened.”

Mr Odeh says “there was no other leader we hated as much as Yitzhak Rabin” before he became the only prime minister to rely on Arab parties for a majority in the Knesset and pushed a historic step towards peace.

Rabin was the general of the wars in 1948 and 1967 and led Israeli efforts to crush the First Intifada, or uprising, when it began in 1987.

“Who dreamt that this same man in 1993 would shake the hand of Yasser Arafat?" Mr Odeh asks. "Our feelings for him changed.”

He insists that even those Palestinian citizens of Israel who say there is no difference between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz, “inside themselves want to tear down Netanyahu”.

Mr Odeh's drive to maximise turnout was aided last week by a powerful anti-boycott video by top rapper Tamer Nafar, who urged his fellow Palestinian citizens of Israel to vote on Tuesday or “end up outside the homeland”.

Aimed mainly at disillusioned younger voters, Mr Nafar's hip-hop video Tamer Must Vote spells out the case against voting.

“It’s our land but their state ... The Knesset’s not for me ... They’re using us to look liberal ... We only see them out there during elections ... Why should I lose a day’s work?”

But he then produces some killer arguments. The video says of Mr Netanyahu and his former far-right defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is now struggling to pass the voter threshold for Knesset entry: “If our vote will erase Lieberman and imprison Bibi, then we’re ready.”

TOPSHOT - A supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wearing a mask with the face of US President Donald Trump marches with a sign reading in Hebrew "guardian of Israel" and a Likud Party electoral portrait of Netanyahu along an alley of the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on April 7, 2019, while campaigning for Netanyahu two days ahead of the electoral polls.  / AFP / MENAHEM KAHANA

It says: “Don’t underestimate their fascism/ Look what they did to our grandparents”, before naming the most extreme right-wing candidates hoping to join a Netanyahu coalition and urging voters to tell “Bennett/Shaked/Feiglin/Smotrich/Kahane’s cronies” that “I’m not moving”.

It concludes “I don’t want to stay outside/For my brothers and sisters in ’67 [occupied territories]/ For the March of Return I’m going to vote/It doesn’t make sense for me to give up a tool when I hardly have any tools.”

Mr Odeh, meanwhile, is not above an even more targeted approach to boycott threats. At the Nazareth meeting a young activist tells the Hadash leader that a student friend of his was planning to abstain.

“Give me his phone number,” the Arab leader replies, to laughter.

Donald Macintyre is the author of Gaza: Preparing for Dawn