Putting it all on the table: Ayman Odeh has a dream of a better future for Israel

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh's dream and Israel’s reality haven’t meshed so far.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Joint List leader Ayman Odeh
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
The Oslo years and Yitzhak Rabin resonate deeply with Ayman Odeh. As leader of the Joint List, a party that combines Hadash, Balad and the United Arab List, he fondly recalls that era of the 1990s, when he was in his late teens and twenties.
“In that time of Rabin we were a voting bloc that was giving a safety net to the coalition. That was the best time for Arabs in the Knesset, that [we] had a role.” Twenty-four years later things have changed. A concrete wall and fences separate Israel from Palestinian Authority areas. Thousands have died in conflicts between Israel, Hamas and Palestinian groups.
“People change,” says Odeh. “You can come closer to the other, you can pass the hardships. It’s not just about politics and ‘you did this and you did that,’ I believe people can stay in the same house and sip coffee together.”
It’s a Tuesday in Jerusalem, in the middle of Ramadan. Odeh, 41-years-old and a secular Muslim, has to represent a party that includes pious Muslims as well as Jews and Christians. So, in deference to the more religious, coffee isn’t on the menu. Instead he has come to give an exclusive interview to the The Jerusalem Post to discuss his plans for how Israeli society can better relate to its minority Arab citizens.
ODEH’S PATH to power began in Haifa. A witness to the first intifada in his teens, he studied in Romania in the 1990s and was elected to the Haifa City Council in 1998. He was active in Hadash, a party founded in 1977 with roots in the Communist Party. At 23, he was one of the youngest men on the Haifa Council. It is perhaps not ironic that when Odeh speaks he references an anecdote about Emile Habibi, a Communist activist who served in the Knesset from 1951 and was one of its youngest members at age 29.
After leaving the Haifa City Council in 2003, Odeh worked for Sikkuy – the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality – and in 2006 became the secretary general of Hadash. When Muhammad Barakei (MK 1999-2015) and Afo Agbaria retired from politics in 2015, it paved the way for Odeh, who had been sixth on the party’s list in the last elections, to head Hadash. It’s a mark of how little he was noticed when, in January 2015, one newspaper still spelled his name Aiman Uda.
A strange set of circumstances set in motion that catapulted Odeh to head a coalition of all the Arab parties running for the Knesset. A law raising the threshold to 3.25 percent for parties to enter the Knesset presented a severe risk to the small Arab parties trying to make it into the Knesset; they had received between 2.56% and 3.65% in 2013. The media reported that Barakei and others didn’t think a joint list was possible.
Nevertheless, two weeks later Odeh presented his list to the elections commission. From the start it was a rocky experience. They wanted to use the letter mem on voting slips, but the Likud refused (it also uses the letter), claiming it could not cooperate with a party that had Haneen Zoabi and the Islamic Movement.
Odeh has had a good relationship with the foreign press. Newsweek called him “Clintonian” in an interview in March 2015. He has also encountered stereotyping. The New Yorker gave him a glowing profile, highlighting the fact that he speaks fluent Hebrew as if it were an anomaly for an Arab to do so. The Forward said a photograph of him with his wife and children “looks exactly like an average Israeli Jewish family. It was a brilliant move on the part of the campaign manager,” not wondering if their own idea of what an Arab looks like was jaundiced.
In the run-up to the March 17, 2015, elections, he stayed on message in his interviews as well. He said he thought his party would get 15 mandates. “We will raise our hands in support of the handicapped, the pensioners, all the weaker sectors,” he told Newsweek. To Al Jazeera he said he was preparing a “10-year plan for closing civic gaps between Arabs and Jews... undoing the decades of systematic discrimination.”
But inside, Israeli politics tested him. Just before the election, the Joint List was accused by the Left of failing “in the ultimate test of partnership,” according to Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On because it wouldn’t sign a vote-sharing agreement with the leftist-Zionist party. Odeh was saying that he believed in partnership, but it appeared his own party’s members did not. Commentator Shlomi Eldar wrote on March 9 that “its members have nothing in common except that they are Arab Israelis. It is doubtful that their desire to survive the elections could keep them united the day after.” Left-wing Zionists scorned the list and the Zionist Union joined the attempt to ban Zoabi, a member of the List, from running in the March election.
On election day, Benjamin Netanyahu used a warning that Arabs were “voting in droves” to galvanize voters. The List came in third place, with 10.5% of the vote, and winning 13 seats it became the third largest party in the Knesset. At the election headquarters in Nazareth, where I was in attendance, the occasion was raucous and Odeh joined his colleagues on stage, hands clasped overhead. There was joy, but there was grumbling among secular communist Arabs. Alcohol had been removed from the venue to accommodate Islamic members. One woman joked that the party included secular people and a man in a polygamous relationship, “like putting Meretz and Shas in the same party.”
Two weeks after the elections, Odeh set out on a 120 kilometer march from the Negev to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, seeking to draw attention to the rights of Beduin of the Negev. The issue of unrecognized Beduin villages is one that he is passionate about. He recalls that villages in the Galilee and center, such as Ein Hud, were not recognized until the 1990s, linking it again with the good feelings of the Oslo period.
“It was good for everyone. If my neighbor has no electricity or water [that is not good], so it is good for both [to have recognition and services]. The area where this is the most difficult is the Negev, where 32% of the residents [100,000 citizens] live in unrecognized villages, without electricity and water, and those who want to care about the Negev must know that,” says Odeh.
He wants to be solution-oriented.
“Since 1948 the state has built 700 new towns and villages, all for the Jewish [residents] and not one for Arabs. To be accurate, they did build five new towns in the Negev [Rahat, Segev Shalom, etc.] only to concentrate Arabs living there, but no new places in the Triangle, for instance. They build new Jewish communities in the Negev, but we ask why not build 60 for Arabs when they build 300 for Jews, since we are 20% [of the population].”
His decision to embark on a long march seemed to square well with his oft-repeated desire to be linked with Martin Luther King, the American civil rights leader he admires.
“Look at Martin Luther King – and to think that there can be a black president today in the US,” he says. Young members of Hadash said privately last year that they felt he did represent a new generation and that he could be a transformative King-like figure. The New Yorker called Odeh “pudgy” and “mild mannered,” but his performance on the long march to Jerusalem for Beduin rights showed him to be more steely, stubborn and possessing immense reserves of energy. While other Joint List members dropped in for a few minutes of walking, or showed up at night to eat, Odeh walked, with a large Moses-like stick in his hand during one portion of it. Since then, nothing has come of the plan to deal with the Negev Beduin’s demands. A plan to move thousands of them to newly recognized villages was scrapped in 2013.
But the unstoppable force of Odeh seems to have met an immovable object in the form of Israeli politics. In December he journeyed to the US and spoke about his views to all who would listen. The trip ran into trouble when Odeh refused to meet at the offices of the Conference of American Presidents of Major US Jewish Organizations because it shares office space with the Jewish Agency.
“I cannot in good conscience participate in meetings in the offices of organizations whose work displaces Arab citizens,” he told reporters.
Back in Israel, three Balad members of the Joint List were suspended in February 2016 from the Knesset by the ethics committee for meeting terrorist families. The families wanted the return of the bodies of the perpetrators for burial; the government was demanding no incitement at the funerals. Controversy over the behavior of Arab MKs has become a ritual. On June 29 a brawl almost erupted in the Knesset after Zoabi said Turkish activists aboard the Mavi Marmara had been “murdered.” Knesset members petitioned to have her banned for six months.
Odeh responded to attacks on Zoabi by writing a letter to the Attorney General accusing Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman of incitement to violence. “The defense minister is known for his statements inciting violence against the Arab population.”
The problem for the Joint List leader is that this distracts from his message. He presents a two-pronged approach. On one hand he believes Arabs and Jews share clear economic interests, a worldview that his Hadash party, which includes many Jewish voters and activists, holds. But the easier issue of economic agreement cannot obscure the need to recognize the national minority rights of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel.
“There are issues from the 1950s and 1948. To build a life together that we must put it all on the table and we must have the strength to believe together. We must not run away from discussing 1948; we need to talk about content. We shouldn’t run away from discussing suffering, but not get held back in discussions of who started it and instead look to the future.”
In his view, Jewish Israelis need to recognize not only the fact that 90% of the Arab community living in what became Israel in 1948 became refugees, but that there are others who were internally displaced inside Israel. He refers here to villages such as Ma’alul, a Christian village whose ghostly massive churches still haunt the landscape near Migdal Ha’emek. Its residents, like those at Bir’am near Jish, and Ikrit, were never permitted to return after they fled in 1948.
Odeh says he has to field questions from Arabs when he meets with families in the north. They ask why areas are being planned for new Jewish neighborhoods but not for them.
“We should recognize those villages that were destroyed in 1948 and that the people are still living here are citizens. So there is a plan for the Galilee, and I want Jews and Arabs together to find an option. Arabs look and see stones and clumps of sabra cactus that indicate where their villages were and feel that Jews don’t recognize that.”
One can see the influence of the ideas of Martin Luther King here, the idea that people can overcome their views of the other.
“I want to tell Israelis here that there is no other option, to have a real democracy and real citizenship. Every country has done wrong, even relating to delegitimization and victimization, but I think we need to open our heads and hearts and ask who the ‘other’ person is, what he suffered in 1948 and put it on the table.” He says that he understands discussions about 1948 inevitably become bogged down in who did what to whom.
“I say we must move forward and it’s not all about the Nakba,” using the term ‘catastrophe,’ that Palestinians use to describe the 1948 war. “It’s not just about right and wrong, or justice. What I say is important is to acknowledge what happened to us indigenous people, and it is important that there must be a real partnership in citizenship.”
But even on these basic issues of shared citizenship and the other, there is a deep chasm. Most Americans will accept that slavery was wrong and African-Americans lacked basic civil rights in many states before the 1960s. But Israeli Jews by and large do not accept the term Nakba or what it implies. They want Arabs to acknowledge that Jews, too, have indigenous rights to this region.
At the same time many in the Arab community cannot bring themselves to see Israel as their own country. They don’t see the unwillingness to accept partition in 1947 as a mistake. Hadash, whose roots are in the Palestine Communist Party which accepted partition, has a long history of this more accepting view, but members of Balad and UAL often do not.
Beyond the issue of historical understanding, Odeh advocates for basic changes that would advance equality. This doesn’t just mean recognizing more Arab communities in the Negev, or ending demolitions of houses built without permits.
“We speak in the opposition about racism and that’s important, but it’s not enough. We need a place in the country. Since the elections, we came up with a plan and now after a year we wanted to see more women working and that there would be more mortgages and that would be good for everyone. This is the plan,” he says.
How would this come about?
“I believe for instance in increasing the number of Arabs in civil service. If there are more Arabs there and sitting around the table [when decisions are made] then that adds something to the dynamic and that [increasing] equality means we are not stuck in the past but moving forward.”
He also sees a future where the Joint List would play a role similar to what Hadash did in the 1990s. During Rabin’s government Hadash and the Arab Democratic Party supported the prime minister’s policy. The Arab Democratic Party leader Abdulwahab Darawshe was Labor supporter in the 1980s. In those days the proximity of the Arab Knesset members to the government was far closer. Some of today’s members of Balad and UAL are very different in their outlook. Odeh wants to remind people that the romantic period of the 1990s was real and can return.
“We don’t see a way to be part of the coalition now, but if we could be a check against the Right we would explore every way to be part of the politics – not sit on the sidelines but be part of politics, even if not in the coalition.”
Part of the role of the support for Rabin’s policies in the 1990s was that Hadash MKs helped support the Oslo Accords.
“I support a two-state solution,” says Odeh. “But with more and more settlers, there is one state and it will be full apartheid. Either that or democracy for everyone. Either democracy or apartheid.”
He thinks that some in the Israeli public don’t understand that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza will not accept half of their rights.
“Palestinians do not just want economic peace; they want to be freed from occupation, and outside of that they won’t agree.” He seems to imply that Israel thinks it can keep getting by on offering crumbs and limited sovereignty, but admonishes, “Arabs do not see themselves as a weak people. They were strong for 700 years, longer than the Romans, and influenced the world.”
He says that while most of the world supports Mahmoud Abbas and two states, Israel is not changing its policies.
“The problem is Netanyahu,” Odeh contends.
But inside the Green Line, the Joint List leader has hope for the future of Israel and a shared destiny of two nations in a single country.
“There is no other way. There is more than one nation here. More than one culture. I speak Hebrew and Arabic, and it adds to people to know both cultures and history.”