Two weeks ahead of Israel’s general elections, the leader of the Joint (Arab) List, Ayman Odeh, was upbeat.
Last Thursday, the little-known 40-year-old lawyer from Haifa won accolades from pundits across the political spectrum for his dignified composure in the face of a scathing attack by former foreign minister and Israel Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman during a prime-time political debate on Channel 2.
“Why did you come to this studio and not to a studio in Gaza?” Liberman charged. “Why aren’t you standing for election in Ramallah rather than in the Israeli Knesset? Why are you even here? You’re not wanted here.”
Odeh sat tight on his seat, grinning despite his visible discomfort. “As it is written in the Book of Proverbs, ‘whoever digs a pit, will fall into it,'” he said calmly. “I am very wanted in my homeland. I am part of the scenery, part of the region. I resemble it. I believe we need to change our attitude; to replace demagoguery with dialogue. ”
Odeh’s conciliatory stance on television was not intended to mask the deep crisis Israeli society faces as it heads to the ballots on March 17, he told The Times of Israel this week. If racism against Arab citizens once existed on the margins of Israeli politics, it now permeates the discourse of the country’s top leadership.
“In 1961, [David Ben-Gurion’s adviser Uri] Lubrani said he wanted Arabs as woodcutters and water carriers,” Odeh said, referring to the biblical subjugation of the Gibeonites in the Book of Joshua. “But he was just a civil servant. Today, it’s not Lubrani, it’s the prime minister who says the real danger to the State of Israel is not the Arabs in the territories but Arabs living inside Israel. It’s [Avigdor] Liberman, a senior minister, who wants to strip some of the Arab citizens of their citizenship. It’s [Jewish Home leader Naftali] Bennett who lashes out at us.”
The three Arab parties active in the past Knesset didn’t have to unite in the Joint (Arab) List in order to survive after the electoral threshold was raised by law from 2% to 3.25% last March, Odeh insisted. Two blocs — one consisting of Odeh’s Hadash party and Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al, and the other comprising nationalist Balad and the Islamic Movement — mulled running separately and were sure to both pass the threshold, but finally decided against the move due to intense public pressure to join forces.
“We [Arabs] feel threatened. This is a unity of the menaced, the marginalized, the oppressed,” he said.
The most recent polls give the Joint (Arab) List 13 seats in the elections, making it the third-largest faction in parliament after the Zionist Union and Likud. According to Odeh’s analysis, that would almost certainly make him head of opposition.
“I believe that whether Herzog or Netanyahu are tasked with forming the government, they will both head to a national unity cabinet. That means we will lead the opposition, which is an extremely important podium. Every foreign guest who visits the country, including heads of state, meet with the head of the opposition. This is an opportunity for us to present our issues, the issues of the Arab public,” he said.
An even more significant achievement would be for Odeh’s predominantly Arab list to enter the government, for the first time in Israeli history. But he said conditions were not yet ripe for that.
‘Neither the agenda, nor the goals of the budget, nor the conduct of any possible government would allow us to be part of it’
“We want to create a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders alongside the State of Israel,” he said.
“This government would dedicate a chunk of its budget to so-called security, giving billions to the settlements instead of to education, health and welfare, especially in the Arab sector. It could enter a war with the Palestinian people, and demolish our homes inside Israel. So neither the agenda, nor the goals of the budget, nor the conduct of any possible government would allow us to be part of it.”
He added, though, “I believe that certain problems could arise within the coalition a year or two into its rule. Only then will we study the matter [of joining the government].”
Speaking hours before Benjamin Netanyahu delivered his controversial speech in Congress, Odeh said that no world leader shares Netanyahu’s uncompromising position on Iran, just as none share his refusal to negotiate the formation of a Palestinian state.
“Netanyahu chose this timing to present the [Iranian] issue because he wants to divert attention from domestic issues such as poverty, housing and health to security. The right everywhere in the world gains more by forming a security agenda while the left gains from a social agenda.”
A 10-year plan to close social gaps
Odeh emphatically believes in Arab-Jewish cooperation on social issues, and in a speech at Haaretz’s recent Democracy Conference expressed disappointment over his party’s inability to attract more Jewish members and supporters. Ahead of the elections, Odeh has devised a comprehensive 10-year plan to tackle issues pertinent to the Arab sector such as employment of women, rehabilitation of failing regional councils, recognition of unrecognized Bedouin communities in the Negev, public transportation in Arab towns and eradication of violence.
‘Just as Jews in the US joined Martin Luther King, I’m sure hundreds of thousands of Jews will join the struggle for civil equality in Israel’
“I’ve counted 80 social issues and brought economists to show how Jews can benefit from dealing with these issues within two years. An Arab who works and pays taxes is good for everyone. An Arab who doesn’t work and receives social security stipends is bad for everyone. This flagship project of mine is a win-win plan to replace the lose-lose discourse,” he said.
In a year, Odeh — who began serving as a city councilman in Haifa and as secretary general of his party in 2006 — plans to organize a human chain from Nazareth to Jerusalem, including Jews and Arabs, to convince the Israeli public of the need for civil equality.
“Just as Jews in the US joined Martin Luther King, I’m sure hundreds of thousands of Jews will join the struggle for civil equality in Israel.”
‘I differ with Zoabi’s style, but she has the right to speak her mind’
Commenting on a decision by the Israeli Supreme Court to allow MK Hanin Zoabi to run for Knesset despite a decision by the Central Elections Committee to bar her candidacy, Odeh thanked Attorney General Yehudah Weinstein and the Court for “defending her rights.”
“I’m obviously not comfortable with her style. We belong to different parties [before the formation of the joint list]. However, I cannot accept the equation whereby those who try to advance the nationality bill are [considered] mainstream and centrist; while [Zoabi] who demands a state for all its citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, is illegitimate and should be removed the political field. I reject this hegemony. I can disagree with her, but it’s her right to run. Democracy isn’t about accepting conciliatory people, but rather those you really disagree with.”
Zoabi, number 7 on his slate, is surely not the only member of the Joint (Arab) List who liberal Odeh disagrees with. The odd medley of Arab nationalists, Islamists (two of whom maintain polygamous marriages in contravention to Israeli law), and staunch socialists has many observes speculating that the party will disintegrate following the elections.
Nevertheless, Odeh believes the “obsession” of the Jewish majority with Hanin Zoabi stems from a flaw in the collective psyche of Israeli society.
‘Jews are so immensely powerful, but somehow feel weak. They are a majority, but behave like a minority’
“Jews are so immensely powerful, but somehow feel weak. They are a majority, but behave like a minority. Take the issue of collective rights mentioned in the nationality bill, for example. Usually collective rights are decided at the formative stage of independence and are given to minorities, not to the majority group. Try to google ‘collective rights for the majority’ and you’ll find something wrong. Only in Israel do people incessantly try to enshrine the collective rights of the majority. There’s something psychologically problematic here.”
Israeli Jews should simply “calm down” and allow for Arab expression in the country’s national symbols.
“I want Jews in the national symbols, but want to see my face there as well. This shouldn’t bother anyone. We comprise 20% of the population so we should be represented in 20% of the view.”
Would the Joint (Arab) List ever recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people? On that point, Odeh was somewhat elusive.
‘I believe that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination, which the State of Israel has fulfilled’
“I believe that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination, which the State of Israel has fulfilled. The Palestinian state is meant to realize the right to self-determination of the Arab Palestinian people, and here it ends. In other words, the fact that Jews in Israel enjoy the right to self-determination doesn’t mean they should discriminate against the Arabs.”
“I certainly won’t agree that in my homeland — which is today a joint homeland for both our peoples — the state will be defined and effectively act as the state of only one nation. I want to see myself everywhere and be a full partner.”