'I'm a son of the Palestinian nation and an Israeli citizen'

At a Tel Aviv café, the top Arab lawmaker Ayman Odeh courts the Jewish vote

Joint List leader believes another seat, from Jewish votes, is within reach, but to get there he has to step around the elephant in the room: the anti-Zionist Balad party

Amir Ben-David is a journalist and senior writer at Zman Israel, The Times of Israel's sister Hebrew website. He's also a musician with the Israeli rock group “Avtipus” ("prototype"), a screenwriter and a novelist.

Joint Arab List head Ayman Odeh courts the Jewish vote at a hip Tel Aviv cafe, February 2020. (Amir Ben-David/Zman Yisrael)
Joint Arab List head Ayman Odeh courts the Jewish vote at a hip Tel Aviv cafe, February 2020. (Amir Ben-David/Zman Yisrael)

When Arab Israeli politician Ayman Odeh arrived at Café Edmond in Tel Aviv, he had one objective in mind: to make sure that not only Arab voters “stream in great numbers to the polls,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote in a contentious Facebook message on the eve of the 2015 elections, but that Jewish leftists do so as well — and put a Joint List slip into the ballot box.

Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site, joined several hundred Tel Avivians who crowded cheek-by-jowl into the café located in Israel’s financial hub in early February. Around half of those present identified themselves as having voted for Odeh’s Joint List party in the previous election. The other half was still deliberating whether to do so this time — but they all appeared warmly disposed to Odeh, who is probably the most popular Arab politician among Jews in the history of Israel.

Odeh has his finger on the pulse of the Israeli left. He follows the polls and reads the supportive opinion pieces in far-left media outlets. And he is sure that an additional Knesset seat above the 13-15 that the polls predict for the Joint List — the alliance of four predominantly Arab parties that he leads (Hadash, Ta’al, Ra’am and Balad) — is within reach. The seat he’s aiming for, though, would theoretically come solely from Jewish voters.

Odeh knows, however, that en route to picking up more Jewish votes for the Joint List he needs to overcome several hurdles.

The first is convincing leftists that an ideological vote of solidarity with Arab citizens of Israel won’t go to waste. Many voters are on the fence, believing that the left-leaning Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance would be far more likely than the Joint List to actually participate in a government coalition with Blue and White head Benny Gantz, and therein lies the best chance of unseating Netanyahu.

Odeh addressed that dilemma head-on. “In the last elections we took a brave step: We said that we wanted to replace Netanyahu, and we recommended Gantz [to form a coalition],” he told those assembled at Café Edmond.

It wasn’t easy for the Joint List to support Gantz, who had begun his campaign by boasting of 1,400 Palestinians killed in Gaza, said Odeh. “But we said to ourselves: What’s the most important thing now? To replace the right-wing administration.”

Joint Arab List head Ayman Odeh courts the Jewish vote at a hip Tel Aviv cafe, February 2020. (Amir Ben-David/Zman Yisrael)

Now, though, instead of embracing the Joint List and commending it for its brave step, the Blue and White leader “speaks of a Jewish majority,” Odeh complained.

“So for us, there’s nothing set in stone,” Odeh said. “Not a recommendation, not support, nothing is a done deal. To us there is only one thing that matters now — for the Joint List to reach 16 seats. And then nobody will be able to ignore us.”

Odeh predicted that his party will bring Arab citizens out of their homes to vote in unusually high numbers. “There will be a very high voter participation rate. And let’s see who comes to us after the elections saying, ‘Sorry, that was just campaign talk,’” Odeh said.

“I won’t care one bit. What I’ll care about is to hear what [Gantz] wants. And let him say it publicly. Without shame. In front of everyone. Let him say, as clearly as possible, that we are a legitimate group, being natives, being citizens, being elected public representatives, and we want to influence events,” said Odeh.

A tale of two nationalisms

A more significant obstacle between the Joint List alliance and its coveted Jewish votes is its inclusion of the Islamist Ra’am party and the Balad party, which contests Israel’s Jewish character.

Odeh is the secular leader of Hadash, a political offshoot of the Israeli Communist Party and other leftist groups.

“I can’t say whether I chose politics or politics chose me. In my senior year of high school I was president of the student board, and even back then I fought for the same values I believe in today. I’ve always belonged to the Hadash movement. My parents have also supported Hadash since I was born, and as time goes on I believe in the Hadash way more and more,” Odeh said.

While the party has consistently found itself outside the government fold, it has always recognized Israel’s right to exist, and one of its Jewish cofounders even signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The party was also first to advocate a two-state solution.

Odeh is aware that Jewish Israelis like those who came to hear him speak at Café Edmond hold political views that are not far off from his own, and are all potential Hadash voters.

(L to R) Joint List candidates Ofer Cassif, Heba Yazbak, Mtanes Shehadeh, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi, Aida Touma-Suleiman and Iman Khatib Yassin appear before supporters at the alliance’s campaign headquarters in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth on September 17, 2019, as the first exit polls are announced on television. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

But it’s not just Hadash that’s on the ballot. It’s the entire Joint List alliance — and many potential Jewish voters recoil at the words of Balad’s terrorist-supporting female MK Heba Yazbak, feel threatened when they see Palestinian flags at protests, and can’t vote for a party of which some members oppose LGBTQ rights.

Some left-wingers simply compare — as one questioner at Café Edmond did — the Palestinian nationalism of Balad to the Jewish nationalism of right-wing Israeli lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich, who advocates for Israeli theocracy, is staunchly homophobic, and in April 2016 called for Jewish-Arab segregation in hospital maternity wards.

Odeh is forced to carefully maneuver between his own opinions and the obligations he bears as leader of the Joint List to maintain unity. As he answered the question about Smotrich, he rejected the comparison between the Yamina member of Knesset and the Balad faction, and likened his predicament to the American Civil Rights Movement.

“In the struggle to free black people in the United States, you had Martin Luther King and you had Malcolm X,” Odeh said. “I could say that I disagreed with Malcolm X and that I agreed with Martin Luther King. So what? Would that have been a reason not to support the black struggle at all?”

Citing a harsh racist hegemony in Israel, Odeh said it’s unacceptable to treat Balad as “a bunch of lepers” and “extremists you can’t deal with” simply because the party “supports Israel being a state for all its citizens.” He further said that there is no comparison between “people fighting to establish a Palestinian state and who recognize the Jewish people’s right to self-determination” and Smotrich, who Odeh said “does not recognize the rights of the Palestinian people.”

File photo: Otzma Yehudit party members Michael Ben Ari (R), Itamar Ben Gvir (2-R) and Baruch Marzel (L) at a campaign event in Bat Yam with Bezalel Smotrich of the Union of Right-Wing Parties on April 6, 2019. (Flash90)

While there are groups within Arab society that he personally doesn’t have much in common with, Odeh said, he currently puts unity ahead of all else.

“Since I’ve become the head of the Joint List, I’ve been trying to unite, to bring people together. That’s my role now. We discuss everything — but we must maintain the camp,” Odeh said.

Maneuvering between the contradictions

To Odeh, the flying of the Palestinian flag at demonstrations inside Israel is a much simpler issue. “The establishment has tried to turn us all into a creature called ‘Arab Israelis,’” he reminded his audience, “but just as there is no such thing as ‘Jewish Israeli,’ there is also no such thing as ‘Arab Israelis.’”

Odeh called the Arab Israeli a creature with no roots, born in 1948 with the establishment of Israel. It is “sort of a distorted Arab and sort of a distorted Israeli,” he said, that can’t fully identify with the Palestinian struggle. And yet, he said, it also can’t be completely Israeli, “because only the Jew is 100 percent Israeli in the State of Israel.”

Joint Arab List head Ayman Odeh courts the Jewish vote at a hip Tel Aviv cafe, February 2020. (Amir Ben-David/Zman Yisrael)

“I am a son of the Arab Palestinian nation,” he said. “And at the same time, I am an Israeli citizen. Sometimes the two contradict each other. We maneuver between them.”

While the Palestinian flag may be a “problematic symbol” due to its use by the Palestine Liberation Organization and the complicated and often violent history between Israel and the Palestinians, Odeh said, it actually predates Israel’s 1948 establishment.

“We need to respect each other’s symbols,” he said.

Odeh applied his mission of unity to include Jews, as well.

“Jewish-Arab partnership is the cornerstone of any deep change in the country, of true peace, of true democracy, of true equality,” he said. “It has to be together, Arabs and Jews.”

This Jewish-Arab cooperation is important and just getting started, Odeh said.

Joint List MKs lead a protest against US President Donald Trump’s peace plan in Baqa al-Gharbiya on February 1, 2020. (Courtesy)

“We’re not stopping with the Joint List,” he said. “This is just the beginning, towards building a party that will be a home to all those who are marginalized in society. A Jewish-Arab slate of the marginalized, who have a common interest to live together in a society based on social justice.”

The full report in Hebrew can be found here on Zman Yisrael.

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