Middle Israel: The gospel according to Ayman Odeh

In the long term, the Israeli-Arab leader's parting with his colleagues' rigidity will be this election's most significant event.

AYMAN ODEH, leader of the Joint List. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
AYMAN ODEH, leader of the Joint List.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
The War of Independence was in its last week and the first Knesset in its second month when Arab lawmaker Tawfik Toubi inaugurated his 41-year parliamentary career with a speech that included this:
“The establishment of the State of Israel, and its resistance of imperialistic intrigues and intervention, was enabled by the resistance of the masses in Israel and by their war for independence and liberty, and by the multisided support that these warriors received from the democratic forces in the world.”
And also this:
“Imperialism’s attempts to thwart the UN’s [partition] resolution... and imperialism’s attack through its agents – the reactionary Arab rulers – in order to prevent Israel’s establishment, were also aimed against the Arab peoples’ interests.... Imperialism managed to deliver the Arab people a calamity that history only rarely sees, [but] it did not manage to destroy the State of Israel, and this is a victory for all forces of freedom and democracy in the Middle East.”
Toubi was no quisling. He frequently confronted the government, most memorably after the 1956 Kafr Kassem massacre, when he collected testimonies from its survivors and read them from the Knesset podium.
Still, Toubi justified Israel’s existence, and was brave enough to say throughout his career that rejecting partition was a grave mistake, and he never backtracked from his accusation of neighboring Arab states as the Palestinian catastrophe’s engines.
This history is crucial for assessing Israeli Arabs’ political future, after MK Ayman Odeh’s statement last week that he will break with precedent and recommend a candidate for the premiership and also aim to join the next coalition.
THE NOMINAL leader of Israel’s Arab citizenry got several things wrong in his seminal interview with Yediot Aharonot’s Nahum Barnea.
The first was his claim that Israeli Arabs became politically illegitimate following the events of October 2000, meaning the deaths of 12 Israeli Arabs in clashes with police this side of the Green Line while Palestinians were rioting on its other side as well.
In fact, Israel’s Arab politicians had radicalized much earlier, in the wake of the First Intifada, as documented by University of Haifa political scientist Dan Schueftan. As he showed with a wealth of quotes, Toubi was succeeded by politicians who deny the Jews’ nationhood, depict Israel as a moral aberration, and work systematically to erode its Jewish character, using an ostensibly liberal agenda in order to demand from Israel what they never demand from Arab governments.
Odeh also got wrong his own colleagues’ inclinations, when he claimed his scheme is “the general spirit” in the four-way alignment he heads. In fact, all his partners rejected it, including his own party, Hadash, which he failed to consult before throwing his bombshell.
Still, Odeh voiced Israeli Arabs’ priorities, just as their record-low turnout in April’s election, 49%, was a vote of no confidence in their representatives’ mixture of nationalist bravado and social neglect.
IF INVITED to coalition talks, said Odeh, he would make demands in four spheres: planning, crime, welfare, and diplomacy.
The diplomatic demand is the most boring: talks with the PLO to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state. Yes, diplomatically that’s a nonstarter, but politically it’s pretty much what Labor and Tzipi Livni asked for, and obtained, before entering Benjamin Netanyahu’s previous coalitions.
The “planning” clause is trickier, as Odeh demands that the government freeze demolition procedures against some Israeli Arabs’ illegally built houses and launder others.
His other request on this front, to build a new Arab city, will also be received coolly in many parts of Jewish Israel, including parts of Blue and White, though it does deserve a hearing.
The rest of Odeh’s demands, however, are harmless, reasonable and, in fact, urgent.
Concerned by rampant crime in the Arab sector, Odeh will join a government that will raid crime families, create an interministerial anti-crime task force, and collect Arab citizens’ illegal weapons. Anyone have a problem with that?
Concerning welfare, Odeh says he will join a coalition that will build a public hospital in an Arab town, raise National Insurance allowances for the elderly, present a master plan for fighting violence against women, and raise the budgets of hostels for women at risk.
Lurking behind this social agenda is a quest for normalcy, which is shared, and increasingly achieved, throughout Arab Israel’s dominant and most skeptical component, the Muslim Israelis, who comprise 17.8% of Israel’s population and 12% of its households.
Normalcy comes hard, but it is coming.
The number of Arab university students has nearly doubled this decade alone, from 26,000 in 2010 to 47,000 two years ago, according to the Council for Higher Education. Israeli Arabs’ average monthly salary, now NIS 6,896, is still two-thirds of Israeli Jews’ average, but it is 25% higher than its level a mere 12 years ago. Israeli Muslim women are still too distant from the workforce, but whereas in the 1970s less than one-tenth of them worked, today more than one-fifth of them work.
Israeli Arabs interact daily with Israeli Jews as their doctors, accountants, engineers, lawyers, professors, contractors, salespeople, pharmacists and judges, including one – Ataf Ilbuni – who the other week was mediating in a gender-separation confrontation between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews.
This population gains nothing from the bravados and provocations that are their elected leaders’ daily menu. Considering his colleagues’ records, Odeh’s road will remain the one not taken, and Israel’s Arabs will watch the political process from the sidelines, like ultra-Orthodoxy during Ben-Gurion’s years.
Still, sometime next decade, like ultra-Orthodoxy’s leaders in 1977, Arab politicians will open the door, and Middle Israelis will welcome them in. On that day all will realize that Odeh’s new agenda was the most significant political event of 2019.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019), is an interpretation of the Jewish people’s political history.