United for the first time and set to become the third largest parliamentary bloc in Tuesday’s election, Israel’s Arab parties could play a key role in forming its next government.
The Joint List groups Israel’s main Arab parties, including representatives from across the political spectrum, alongside the Jewish-Arab communist party Hadash.
The head of the list is Ayman Odeh, a 40-year-old lawyer well aware of the “great responsibility” upon his shoulders.
Odeh is a member of Israel’s Arab minority who number more than 1.3 million and account for some 20 percent of the population of the Jewish state.
Arab Israelis are the Palestinians who stayed on their land when the state of Israel was established in 1948.
The Arab parties united this year after parliament approved a law raising the threshold for entry to the Knesset from two to 3.25 percent of the national vote.
At the time, the move was widely denounced as a ploy to keep the Arab parties out of parliament.
Instead it forced them to unite in a move Odeh says will allow them to offer a real alternative to main blocs such as the rightwing nationalist camp led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and the centre-left led by the Zionist Union.
“We will be an alternative camp, the democratic camp -– where Arabs and Jews are equal partners, not enemies,” he said in an interview with Britain’s The Guardian newspaper.
“Our Joint List calls for the unification of all the weak and oppressed populations, regardless of race, religion or sex.”
But perhaps its biggest impact could come in helping to form the next government.
– ‘Influence will greatly increase’ –
Israel’s election system means one party winning an outright majority is rare.
The prime minister is not the head of the party that gains the most seats but rather the individual who can form alliances to create a majority coalition.
Predicted to win 13 seats — third behind the Zionist Union and Likud — the Joint Arab List must decide whether to take part in a coalition government or to remain in opposition.
While joining with parties that wage war on the Palestinians is out of the question, analysts say the Arab parties could consider teaming up with the Zionist Union, which is predicted to narrowly defeat Netanyahu’s Likud at the polls.
Although the two diverge over key issues — including the right of return for Palestinian refugees — the Zionist Union and Arab parties could find common ground in seeking conditions conducive to renewed dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians.
But there are several potential stumbling blocks.
“What would (The Joint List) do if the government took a sensitive decision regarding the Palestinians or declared war on Gaza or Lebanon?” asked analyst Ass al-Atrash.
Whatever the list decides, it is set to become a key player during the formation of Israeli’s next government.
Even choosing to stay in opposition would give the Arab parties unprecedented parliamentary clout, according to Atrash.
“Their weight and influence will greatly increase,” he said. “With each crucial decision, the law requires the majority leader to present their project to the head of the opposition.”
– ‘Better future’ –
In a recent TV debate, commentators praised Odeh as giving the best performance and possessing the most charisma of the various party leaders.
He says his dream is to reach a place where he can ensure a “better future” for his constituents who have complained for years of being treated as second-class citizens.
The son of a mason from the northern port city of Haifa, which has a mixed Arab-Jewish population, Odeh became politically active during high school where he headed the student council.
He was repeatedly arrested on account of his protest activities, coming to the attention of the Shin Bet Israeli internal security agency at an early age, he says.
To critics who equate his youth with inexperience, Odeh refers to his years of political activism.
“Yes, I’m the youngest candidate on the list, but I began my activities in the 1990s,” he told AFP.