Arab Party Could Lead Opposition

HAIFA (Reuters) -
Members of the Joint List arrive for a meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s Arab parties are set to be the largest non-ruling bloc in the Knesset – and could even lead the opposition – if a national unity government emerges from Tuesday’s election.

A surge in turnout gave the Arab-dominated Joint List 13 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, making it the third-largest grouping behind Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, with 31 seats, and Benny Gantz’s center-left Blue and White, with 33.

This would create a sensitive situation, given that whoever is the opposition leader customarily receives monthly security briefings and meets visiting heads of state, among other perks. Members of the Joint List have been accused of being subversives who openly support Israel’s enemies and have sharply criticized the country in trips abroad.

“It is an interesting position, never before held by someone from the Arab population. It has a lot of influence,” party chief Ayman Odeh told reporters outside his home in Haifa.

But although the Joint List will be the single largest group, other opposition parties combined would have enough seats to block his appointment through an absolute majority vote, analysts said.

“There’s no way the other parties will agree to have Ayman Odeh as head of the opposition, and grant our community recognition and legitimacy,” said Aida Touma-Sliman, an Arab lawmaker from Odeh’s Hadash faction.

The Mossawa Center rights group says Israel’s state budget often favors Jews, allocating more funds to Jewish localities and schools than to Arab ones. Some 47% of Arab citizens live in poverty, far above a national average of 18%, it says.

However, Netanyahu’s Likud party counters that its 15 billion shekel ($4.19 billion) investment plan for the Arab sector during the last parliament was “the largest such commitment in Israel’s history,” according to Eli Hazan, Likud’s foreign affairs director.

In Tuesday’s election, Odeh and his group of four Arab parties ran a united front and Arab turnout increased sharply. That helped them regain seats lost in April when they were divided and turnout plummeted.

The Joint List held up its stronger showing on Tuesday’s rerun as a victory over what it described as an “unprecedented campaign of incitement against the Arab public” by Netanyahu and right-wing parties.

Netanyahu made allegations of voter fraud in Arab communities an issue in his election campaign, and sought to deploy cameras to the country’s polling centers in what Arab leaders described as an attempt to scare off voters. Israel’s top court refused to allow cameras.