Israeli Arab Leader Strives to Teach Netanyahu Something About Suffering

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Joint Arab List leader Ayman Odeh in the Knesset, April 2015. Credit: Emil Salman

Between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence Day, Israel’s week of national holidays, Joint Arab List chief Ayman Odeh felt suffocated in the Knesset. State symbols watched him from all sides — the flag, the menorah, Theodor Herzl — and he felt excluded by them all.

“There’s something psychological here. In every corner of the Knesset there’s a symbol of the nation, but there are almost no civic symbols. There are no pictures of the country’s landscapes, nature, Arabs and Jews together,” he says.

“It seems the Jews don’t feel like a majority. Most of the Jews are strong, but they’re also afraid, and that’s awful for the minority. When there’s a majority that feels like a minority and is strong but feels weak and threatened, we pay the price.”

Odeh has started his first Knesset term heading the grouping that contains four Arab parties in an artificial marriage. The goal was to eclipse the increased 3.25-percent electoral threshold, which the party did with ease — its 13 seats make it the Knesset’s third largest party.

If Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union enters a unity government — he insists he won’t — Odeh will probably become Israel’s first-ever Arab opposition leader. He was actually supposed to enter the Knesset before the election and replace Mohammed Barakeh as head of the Arab-Jewish Hadash party, but the vote was moved up to March 17.

Alongside his 10-year plan to reduce inequality between Jews and Arabs, Odeh wants to help the poor and have the unrecognized Bedouin communities in the Negev recognized. He also wants to increase funding for Arab culture. He has already spoken with key Likud MK Zeev Elkin.

“I told him: ‘The opposition rarely manages to pass bills when you’re coalition whip, so tell me what you can accept.’ He told me Jews should learn Arabic starting in the first grade. I said: ‘Okay, I’ll propose it.’”

Before the swearing-in ceremony at the Knesset, Joint Arab List MKs had to decide whether to stand during the singing of the national anthem, which talks about “the Jewish soul.”

“There was an argument in the party,” says Odeh. He says he asked the other MKs to treat it as an official ceremony and not walk out. In the end, no agreement was reached and Odeh and the other Hadash MKs remained along with Osama Saadia of Ta’al, a component of the Arab ticket. The others left.

Odeh says that for nearly two weeks he argued with himself over whether to stay. “Sometimes I regret I stayed, sometimes not,” he says.

After the swearing-in, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech was out of touch and nationalist, as if it came out of history 3,000 years ago, Odeh says, adding that Netanyahu spoke so heatedly he was more like an actor.

A week ago Odeh took part in the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony. This time he left before the national anthem, but not because of it. “I’ve read ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ — and also it hurts me how [a Holocaust survivor] collapsed during the Eichmann trial,” he says.

“All nations’ stories touch me. But to identify in a true and deep way with the stories about the Holocaust, we must fight racism and the persecution of minorities. And that’s not what’s happening in this country. It hurts.”

Odeh says Netanyahu backs racist laws and wants to discard democracy. He says he has greater credibility talking about the Holocaust than Netanyahu because he’s fighting racism and represents a minority that seeks cooperation based on respect.

Odeh is due to meet Netanyahu soon, a meeting he says he learned about in the newspapers. Even though he considers the tte–à–tte a media exercise and the prime minister’s attempt to put out the fires he set on Election Day, Odeh asked his MKs whether he should attend — and they all said yes.

“The burden of proof is on Bibi,” Odeh adds. “He needs to convince us he wants a serious meeting.”

Odeh will also be meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the next two weeks, as well as with President Reuven Rivlin and Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life terms for terror activity.

Regarding the criticism that Israeli Arab leaders worry more about the Palestinians than their own voters, Odeh says he wants to lead the battle here in Israel. But he also believes that real equality will be only be possible by solving the Palestinian issue, because the country of which he’s a citizen is at war with the people he belongs to.

“We’re between the hammer and the anvil,” he says.

Odeh distinguishes between civil rights, which he thinks can be achieved now, and national rights. Issues such as employment for Arab women and public transportation “don’t need to be part of an ideological dispute. As for national rights, we can disagree.”

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