Arab MK Speaks at Tel Aviv Opposition Rally Days Before New ...

Arab MK Speaks at Tel Aviv Opposition Rally Days Before New Elections Called

May 30, 2019

After significant deliberations until just a few hours prior to a large rally organized by Opposition parties in Tel Aviv on Saturday, May 25, MK Ayman Odeh, Chair of the Arab-led Hadash-Ta’al list, was officially invited by MK Benny Gantz to be one of the speakers.The last minute decision to include an Arab speaker in the rally was fraught, but Odeh's speech was received well by the crowd and, according to Al-Monitor, was followed by a congratulatory call by MK Gantz in which "the two agreed to continue this successful experiment." 

With new elections called just a few days later, Odeh's inclusion in the rally and focus on partnership are seen by some as indication that more fruitful discussion towards cooperation between Jewish and Arab parties may be possible this time around. 

The debate whether to include Arab representation at the rally took place primarily between leaders of Kahol Lavan, the Knesset’s largest opposition party, and Labor, Meretz and Arab-led parties, and drew public pressure from civil society organizations, journalists and activists. This debate reflected the tensions and sensitivities surrounding Jewish-Arab political partnership which became a prominent and divisive aspect of the recent elections cycle and has generated discussion about the future of Arab-led parties within the political center-left camp in Israel.

The rally was held in protest of efforts by Likud, the leading political party responsible for forming the next government, to incorporate into coalition agreements commitments that would provide immunity to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from prosecution on corruption charges, and propose legislation that would prevent the High Court of Justice from intervening. Other speakers included Kahol Lavan Chairmen MK Benny Gantz and MK Yair Lapid and MKs Moshe Ya’alon and Ofer Shelah; Labor Chairman MK Avi Gabbay; Meretz Chairwoman MK Tamar Zandberg; retired Druze general Amal Asad; and attorney Sagit Peretz Deri.

Taking the stage, MK Odeh spoke about his support for Jewish-Arab cooperation. "I am here today because I believe in Jewish-Arab partnership and believe it is the only way for hope in this country," Odeh said to the crowd. "Arab citizens alone cannot do it, but without us it is also impossible. This is the basic equation….I am here today because I believe that without equality there is no democracy." He spoke of his willingness to work with Jewish-led parties and be “a legitimate partner in the change in this country." (Full speech video)

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Odeh’s speech was met with enthusiastic applause from the crowd and was praised by numerous politicians, activists and journalists on social media. But debate prior to the rally about whether the Arab parties were being deliberately excluded, and whether they should be included, was fraught.

Jewish Political Leadership

Prior to the rally, Labor and Meretz MKs took to social media to make strong statements in support of including Arab representatives at the rally. MK Shelly Yachimovich wrote on Twitter that “a protest without Arabs is a surrender to racism and to the incitement from the right.” MK Itzik Shmuli (Labor Secretary General) tweeted: "The victory of democracy while the Arab public is being excluded is neither moral nor practical." Tamar Zandberg, Chair of Meretz tweeted that “there is no democracy without equality and the struggle for democracy cannot be for Jews only. All opposition members will be on stage tonight.”

Within Kahol Lavan, the issue was a source of disagreement. While leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid ultimately approved the invitation, MK Moshe Ya’alon—a former Defense Minister who holds the third slot on the list—opposed it. In addition, two Kahol Lavan MKs, Zvi Hausner and Yoaz Hendel, did not attend the rally because Odeh spoke.

In a radio interview, MK Moshe Ya’alon explained that "Netanyahu's attacks on democracy led us to decide to invite Ayman Odeh, and his speech answered the need to address the democratic issue." But he confirmed his opposition to the invitation because of his belief that Hadash’s platform does not accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and because “the fact that Odeh went on stage caused Likud people who were on the way to turn around and drive away.”

Indeed, Likud responded to Odeh’s participation with a statement calling MK Ayman Odeh a ‘terrorist,’ speaking at the rally with the blessing of Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid,” echoing the party's election campaign delegitimizing Kahol Lavan's option to rely on Arab-led parties to form a governing coalition. In response, MK Odeh stated he "can file slander charges for this accusation." (Hebrew)

Arab Society Response

Odeh’s decision to speak also generated mixed reactions in Arab society due to a combination of factors, including that Arab-led parties were not among the organizers of the event, the title given to the protest ("Defensive Shield," the name of a large scale military operation held during the Second Intifada), and that the rally was scheduled to begin just as the Ramadan fast of the day was ending and Iftar events commencing, presenting a challenge to the participation of Arab demonstrators.

Hadash party members debated intensively as to whether Odeh should participate, and ultimately the party issued a post supporting this decision (Hebrew) but MK Ofer Kasif was the only other MK from Hadash-Ta’al to attend the rally. Mansour Abbas, Chairman of the Knesset’s other Arab list, Ra’am-Balad, did not attend the rally and said that Arab citizens of Israel “are in no one’s pocket.”

Hadash MK Aida Touma-Sliman said that the invitation to Odeh represented progress but that Arab society should have been involved in the planning of the event: “The opposition’s true test isn’t just giving a platform to a representative of the Arab community, but a willingness to involve this community in establishing and building the platform and sharpening its messages.”

Ta’al chairman Ahmad Tibi said he supported Odeh’s decision to speak, but could not attend the rally due to Ramadan plans. “We in the Hadash-Ta’al ticket cooperate in the Knesset with all the opposition parties on issues we agree on, and there’s no reason not to work together in the streets on these issues. I hope Kahol Lavan will also be understanding of the issues important to us, like the war on crime as well as planning and construction.”

In support of MK Odeh's participation, writer Odeh Bisharat said that Odeh’s decision to speak despite opposition within Arab society, along with the support he received at the rally from the Jewish attendees, shows that “even the Arabs and democratic Jewish elements are learning that we must join hands with those who until yesterday were on the other side of the divide.”

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