Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
During an hour-long meeting with representatives of American Jewish organizations in New York, MK Ayman Odeh was asked what US Jews could do to help fulfill his vision for enhancing the status of Israel’s Arab citizens.
“American Jews played a great moral role in the struggle of African Americans, have a deep understanding of justice and minority rights,” said Odeh, head of the Joint List. He cited the Rev. Martin Luther King as a role model, an inspiration for his desire to lead “an equality march with Jews and Arabs together from Nazareth to Jerusalem.”
He expressed hope that some of the 100 American Jews representing national and local organizations, and philanthropies, in the conference room last December would join him as “a public display of activism that would propel a movement to end all forms of discrimination.”
However, after his US performance, and subsequent actions in Israel, few US Jews are likely to join his march, if it even takes place.
In his New York remarks, Odeh first focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He delivered a blistering attack on the “occupation,” on what he called “Israel’s failure” to achieve peace with the Palestinians, and on “the racist government” of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Discussion of the challenges his fellow Arab citizens face in education, employment, housing and transportation came second. Much of what he presented as possible solutions would turn out to be part of the Netanyahu government’s own plan.
Two days later, Odeh suddenly canceled his appearance at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, declaring he could not enter the premises where the Jewish Agency also has office space. Odeh won plaudits from his Joint List partners, but left many American Jews, including those who had attended the earlier meeting, puzzled and disheartened.
Back in Israel, Odeh blasted President Barack Obama, blaming him for the failure of the peace process. “The US is part of the problem, not part of the solution,” he said.
More recently, several Joint List MKs met with the families of Palestinian terrorists. Though Odeh was not at that meeting, he did not reprimand the MKs but instead justified their initiative.
And last week he proclaimed support for Joint List members condemning the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for labeling Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The Arab MKs’ support for Hezbollah invited a stern condemnation from Prime Minister Netanyahu and others. The Arab League declaration on Friday that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization further marginalized the Joint List.
Arab MKs have long been criticized within their own community for not adequately representing their constituencies. Seventy percent of Israeli Arabs, according to a Haaretz survey last year, want their Knesset representatives to focus more on improving their social and economic situations and less on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A poll released last week found that 56% of Israeli Arabs disagreed with the Arab MKs’ condemnation of the GCC.
Since Odeh’s US visit, one of the most significant, positive developments in Jewish-Arab relations in Israel’s history occurred when the government unanimously adopted a $4 billion plan to invest substantially in the country’s Arab communities over the next five years. The plan has been widely praised as “historic,” as it will narrow longstanding gaps between the country’s Arab and Jewish citizens.
Odeh so far has reserved judgment.
“We hope we shall see the full implementation of the program,” he said after the plan was announced, apparently hesitant to acknowledge that the government he calls “racist” is doing the right thing, and that he had consulted with Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon as they crafted the plan.
Embracing the plan publicly would convey to Arab citizens that their elected representatives are prioritizing their well-being. It would show a commitment to ensuring, together with the government, that the plan is implemented.
And, not unimportant, Odeh would reassure American Jews, especially those committed to helping improve the situation for Arab citizens and Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, that he is a genuine partner.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.