By Bashir Abu Manneh
Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Arab Joint List in the Israeli Knesset, has written in the New York Times announcing his party’s endorsement of Benny Gantz for Prime Minister. This bizarre endorsement was advanced even though Odeh clearly states that “Mr. Gantz has refused to commit to our legitimate political demands for a shared future.” Odeh’s demands include state alleviation of criminal violence, discrimination, exclusion, poverty, as well as cancelling the Nation-State Law that codifies the political obstruction of Palestinian self-determination and prepares for the de jure annexation of most of the West Bank.
Even though Gantz has offered Arab voters nothing, and his Kahol Lavan party represents the Zionist military-security complex, Odeh still sees hope in them: “By choosing to recommend Mr. Gantz, we have proven that cooperation between people, Arab and Jewish, is the only principled political strategy that will lead to a better future for us all.”
What Odeh’s grand language obscures is that he is merely ensuring that Netanhayu does not get first dibs at forming the next government. So rather than wait forty-two days for Netanyahu to inevitably fail in this task (with less seats than before), Odeh merely speeds up that process and gives Gantz the chance to go first. That’s all. Is this minor anti-Bibi electoral move worth recruiting “the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish and the stories of our grandparents” grandiloquently invoked by Odeh at the end of his article?
While Odeh might warm the hearts of liberal Zionists in the New York Times, who want to clean Israel’s image abroad by removing Netanyahu, there is nothing principled or dignified about endorsing a group of ex-army generals who have committed war crimes in the Occupied Territories and advocate annexation and permanent Jewish supremacy.
In fact, Odeh’s blinkered parliamentary perspective and talk of political responsibility smack of the opportunism of the Israeli Communist Party (ICP). In the name of spurious peace promises (like Oslo), the ICP has always underplayed the national contradictions between colonial settlers and dispossessed Palestinians — forgetting that the brotherhood between peoples happens only after equality between them is achieved.
Odeh’s anti-Netanyahu discourse is reminiscent of the ICP’s 1950s anti–Ben Gurion discourse. That the problem with Israeli politics was Ben Gurion: not an exclusionary state or racist Zionist parties. To enhance Israeli democracy, Ben Gurion had to be ousted from power. But that failed to stop Israeli colonial expansion and more wars. Ousting Netanyahu today will also not stop Israel’s current thirst for wars or exclusive sovereignty. Such a narrow strategy leads nowhere.
It is perfectly legitimate to participate in Israeli elections and use a hostile platform like the Israeli Knesset to promote the rights and demands of oppressed Palestinians contra Israel’s rabid militarism and colonial intransigence. What is not legitimate is to use one’s position in the Knesset to conform to Zionist parties, to tail their strategies, and to destroy one’s independent political identity.
The actual problem with Israeli politics is that all it produces are Netanyahus, Gantzs, or worse. It does so because Israeli politics is premised on the internationally undisturbed politicide of the Palestinian people. Even left Zionists like Meretz have joined forces with Ehud Barak — who has done as much as Netanyahu to demonize and criminalize Palestinians and destroy them as partners for peace.
Odeh knows all this. He knows that the Israeli occupation is illegal in international law, that Gantz is a war criminal, and that Kahol Lavan is full of extremists. Why then is he alienating his Palestinian left-nationalist partners Balad — who came out against endorsing Gantz — and alienating the majority of occupied Palestinians by endorsing an ex-head of the IDF whose April election campaign celebrated his record of “killing terrorists” in Gaza?
Only Odeh knows the answer to this. What is clear is that there is no justification for such brazen capitulation: not even election fever. To argue that Palestinians in Israel need to forgo their legitimate national demands in order to have their local social problems (like crime and violence) addressed is to mix up political cards. Israel is using a social crisis it has manufactured in the “Arab sector” to force capitulation and compromise on Palestinians in Israel.
A responsible leadership would organize its despairing constituency against such tactics and actively formulate political alternatives and strategies against state-inflicted injuries — rather than trade one right for another. Endorsing Gantz falls into that Israeli trap and politically confuses Palestinians in Israel.
Not that Gantz was looking for Odeh’s endorsement: he has so far shunned it in public. Would a Zionist general really want to fly into the prime ministership on Palestinian wings? Even in the narrow game of Israeli electioneering everyone knows that it is Liebermann not Odeh who will decide the outcome of this round of parliamentary acrobatics, and that it is the Israeli attorney general who this week will decide whether Netanyahu should be prosecuted for corruption, thus ending his political career.
The Palestinians in Israel are not the kingmakers of Jewish Israel. Their leadership should uphold their just national cause and actively organize against their social exclusion. They can join Israeli governments only when Israeli society produces leaders and parties who truly believe in justice and peace and are willing to act on them. Until then, Israel’s parliament should be a platform for radical opposition on behalf of Zionism’s victims — not cynical horse-trading with war criminals.