Jews and Arabs in Israel: Not Necessarily Enemies, Says Israeli-Arab Leader

Even as Israeli society seems locked into a centripetal trajectory, Ayman Odeh insists: Jews and Arabs need not be adversaries in a zero-sum game.

David B. Green
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Joint List chairman MK Ayman Odeh
MK Ayman Odeh, previously head of the four-party Joint List, now head of the Hadash-Ta'al joint listCredit: David Bachar
David B. Green

The Joint Arab List might not be the obvious champion for Ethiopian Jews protesting against discrimination. Yet when Ethiopian Israelis took to the streets in May after policemen were filmed beating an Israeli Ethiopian soldier, marching by their side was Knesset Member Ayman Odeh, chairman of the newly formed party.

One might think that Odeh, then one month into his first term in the parliament, would have his hands full with legislative and party duties. The problems of Ethiopian immigrants are not high on the list of concerns of Arab Israelis, nor are many future voters for him likely to emerge from the Ethiopian community.

Odeh however says it was “natural” for him to support the Ethiopians - and pledged “to stand and struggle by their side until there is a more equal and just society here, in which there is no difference between black and white, man and woman, Jew and Arab.”

At a protest by Ethiopian Israelis against discrimination, June 22, 2015 (Tomer Appelbaum)

Forecast: Gentler rain?

The show of solidarity is but one example of an approach to Israeli citizenship espoused by Odeh that feels like the soft breeze of spring in a political environment where the forecast generally calls for acid rain. He also participated in a chain of linked demonstrations in May by residents of the Negev to call attention to the raging unemployment in the south, following the threat of layoffs at a major employer – Israel Chemicals.

Odeh, 40, is not only inclusionary in his politics, he’s non-confrontational in his manner, in a legislature – and party -- where insults, threats and raised voices are the norm. He’s like a parent or teacher who remains calm and rational while the kids’ behavior suggests they might be in need of a time-out.

Not that he’s lacking in passion. During a recent visit to his office, he diverted what was intended to be a discussion of his political game-plan to releasing a pained flood of disbelief and frustration about a government plan, whose legality had been affirmed days earlier by the High Court of Justice, to depopulate and plow over Umm al-Hiran, a Bedouin village in the Negev, in order to make room for a new community for Jews on the spot."It is so important that you feel my pain," he beseeched. "This story of Umm al-Hiran, it affects me in my very soul.”

He described a tour he undertook a few years ago of the unrecognized Bedouin settlements in the south, spending a night in each one. “I wanted to know the people. I connected to the children ” Suddenly, he stopped talking, and covered his face with a hand. For at least two minutes of precious interview time, he stayed silent – as if unable to compose himself. 

"The story of Umm al-Hiran is the story of Israeli democracy, it’s a story about all of us," He says. That is why, he declares, "I am telling you, loud and clear, we will not allow this to happen." But from him, that sounds more like a pledge than a threat.

Umm al-Hiran, a Bedouin village in the Negev that the government wants to plow over. (Eliau Hershkovitz)

Ugly rhetoric

It is logical for him to support those from “the weakest segments of society,” Odeh tells me, in another conversation. “I believe that what benefits society in general will benefit the Arab population specifically -- and vice versa,” he elaborated.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that this freshman politician who has positioned himself as a campaigner for all of Israel’s downtrodden is, at the same time, the head of a political organization identified almost exclusively with a single ethnic group.

The Joint List is a coalition of four parties consisting almost entirely of Arabs: the communist party Hadash; the Islamic Party; Balad, which aspires to a single binational state rather than Israel and a Palestinian state; and Ta’al (Arab Movement for Renewal), a secular party headed by MK Ahmed Tibi.

If the universalist message, and the argument that all Israelis are deserving of equal rights and privileges simply because they are citizens is one half of Odeh’s doctrine, the other half is a proud identification with the Palestinian national identity. He sees no contradiction between the two, and seems determined to convince the Jewish public that it shouldn’t either.

On the Joint Arab List ticket, from left: Dov Khenin, Ahmed Tibi, Ayman Oudeh, Jamal Zahalka and Basel Ghattas. (Gil Eliahu)

In his maiden speech in the Knesset, for example, on May 1, he insisted that, “I, Ayman Odeh, do not pose a threat, just as the half a million people who gave us their vote don’t.” Addressing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, midday on election day, notoriously warned that Arab citizens were voting in “massive numbers,” Odeh argued that “every citizen should rejoice in the citizenry voting" and added, “Pride and national identity do not negate the desire to be part of the broad community and the state."

In Israel of 2015, this is not a self-evident truth. Certainly not since 2000, when the second intifada began, a trauma of horrible violence whose wounds still feel fresh for Israelis and Palestinians alike. The beginning of the intifada in Jerusalem and the territories was accompanied by an outburst of violent protest by Israel’s Arab citizens that was met by live fire by the police, which killed 12 Israeli Arabs and one Palestinian.

Since then, relations between Jews and Arabs within Israel have been basically peaceful, with occasional pinpoint clashes. Nonetheless, mutual suspicion, reflected in ugly rhetoric – much of it from Jewish politicians, and directed at the Arab public – arguably runs higher than ever.

'They all hate Israel'

Most notable, perhaps, has been the ongoing call by MK Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Bayit Hayehudi party and the former foreign minister, to “transfer” a portion of Israel’s Arab citizens to a future Palestinian state. The proposed swap would involve Israel relinquishing sovereignty over a strip of land along the Green Line that just happens to be densely populated with Arabs. In return, enclaves of the West Bank with Israeli settlements would come under Israeli rule.

In the single television debate that preceded the March election, Lieberman attacked Odeh and the Joint List. Calling the Arab Knesset members a “fifth column,” he charged that “they all hate the State of Israel, and they represent the terror organizations in the Knesset.”

Avigdor Lieberman (Olivier Fitoussi)

Lieberman's complaint about Odeh specifically included the charge that he “goes around to schools and he tells [Arab] children not to serve in national service, and [yet] he continues to be a citizen of Israel.”

It is correct that over the past decade, Odeh, who from 2006 until this year, was secretary-general of Hadash, led the campaign to discourage Arab young people from volunteering for national service. But it’s also correct that it was the state that decided long ago to exempt Arab citizens from any kind of service, whether military or civilian. They are under no obligation to volunteer, and most discussions about changing the overall policy have not included representatives of the Arab population.

Odeh is not opposed to civilian service for Arabs. He is opposed to its being implemented without that community being given an opportunity to participate in the conversation.

One may disagree with Odeh’s approach to this complex subject, but he certainly hasn’t committed any crime. According to Lieberman, however, “In any normal country, this man would have already been put on trial, for incitement and encouraging rebellion.”

Lieberman, hoist by his own petard

The god of history is likely laughing now, because it is the same Lieberman who probably did more than anyone to spur the formation of the Joint Arab List, a development that has been on the Arab public's wish-list for years.

That’s because Lieberman was the chief sponsor of the 2014 bill raising the minimum percentage of the vote needed by a party to enter the Knesset from 2 percent to 3.5 percent of votes cast – meaning that a party that does not win four seats would not pass the threshold.  

Since Arab voting had been declining since 1999 (at a steeper rate than the decline among Jewish voters), the higher voter threshold meant that it was likely that some, if not all, of the existing Arab parties, if running separately, would not make it into the Knesset.

Voting in Abu Ghosh: Arab Israeli voter turnout climbed with the formation of the Joint Arab List (Lior Mizrahi)

That might have suited certain politicians on the right just fine, but it would have deprived the Arab public of any representative voice in national politics, something that couldn’t bode well for Israeli democracy. And in fact, a poll conducted by the Abraham Fund Initiatives -- an NGO dedicated to advancing the cause of Arab-Jewish coexistence and equality -- shortly before the deadline for parties to submit their lists to the elections committee, forecast that turnout among Arab citizens would actually rise by 10 percent, compared with the 2013 election, if Balad, Hadash, Ra’am and Ta’al were to run on a single list.  

That made the logic of uniting into a no-brainer, and on January 22, the formation of the Joint Arab List was announced.  Odeh, chairman of Hadash, was named the united party's chairman.

In the end, the turnout among Israel’s Arabs topped the 2013 rate nearly eight percent – 63.5 percent this year versus 56 percent two years ago. And the united party won 13 seats (out of a total of 120) in the March 2015 general election, compared with the 12 seats the parties constituting it attained between them in the previous Knesset.

A truly democratic list?

It may be sad that this is so, but in an Israel that may be more polarized today than at any time in the past, there’s something revolutionary about a political movement that doesn’t see Jewish interests as inherently pitted against those of the Arab population. For a long time, conventional wisdom has assumed that any gain by you and your group constitutes a loss for me and my community.

But there's been a growing school of thought that Israel’s Jewish left has no chance of reconstituting itself politically if it doesn’t make common cause with the Arab minority. Odeh said as much during the February 26 televised debate: “The left cannot bring about peace and democracy without the Arab population. We can only succeed if we work together. What unifies our united list, which is for social justice, but not only, is that we are for national justice for two peoples.”

While on the topic, Odeh went on to suggest, without having been asked: “We aspire to a joint Jewish-Arab list. We aren’t strong enough for it yet, but it’s what we aspire to.”

It’s not clear, however, that the sister parties to Hadash in the United Arab List share such an aspiration.

The list is not a party. It is a coalition formed for the purposes of an election, and no one knows how long its constituent parts will succeed in keeping it together. Ayman Odeh does not have the authority to speak in the name of the list without getting the approval of his partners.

That being said, the four parties making up the list, as ideologically diverse as they may be, signed onto a platform of eight points before the election, in which they agree on some fairly significant issues. These include a call for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based on the pre-1967 borders; recognition of the Arab population as a “national minority, with cultural, religious and educational autonomy”; complete equality for women, “in all areas of life.” For good measure, they threw in their aspiration to see the Middle East turned into a nuclear-free zone. 

Asked how he felt about Odeh’s having taking on the mantle of speaking for Jewish Israelis as well as Palestinian ones, MK Masud Ghanaim, the leader of the Joint List’s Islamic faction, said he didn't see a problem: “When we talk about justice and about equality, it’s not just for Arabs. We’re talking about all of society’s weak sectors of society, and our struggle for justice and fairness, and for recognition of cultural and national differences, is good for Jews as well as Arabs.”

Abetting the oppressor?

Not all agree. Abed Abu-Shhaad, a 27-year-old student and political activist from Jaffa and a very articulate Balad supporter, thinks that Ayman Odeh had no place joining a demonstration of Ethiopian Jews, certainly not one meant to show support for a soldier: “Why should we fight for them? Tomorrow they will join the forces to oppress my people.”

Four years ago, Abu-Shhaad says, he was an active participant in the so-called "Social Protest," a summer-long series of protests about the high cost of living in Israel and the unequal distribution of resources. In retrospect, however, he says, “I realized that this protest was for the Israeli middle class,” by which he means the Jewish middle class.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in 2011 to protest the high cost of living. (Tal Cohen)

“Time after time, its leaders didn’t want to talk about the Arab issue, because the Palestinian issue doesn’t interest Jews," Abu-Shhaad says. (At the time, the leaders of the protest agreed to keep the subject of the occupation out of the discussion, for fear of alienating supporters of the settlement movement who might otherwise be supportive of the social-economic message of the protest.)

Abu-Shhaad is not a Palestinian separatist – “I think social segregation is a catastrophe,” he told me – but he is convinced that Arab Israelis can depend only on themselves. The way to better their lot is through more autonomy – in running their own schools, for one thing. They shouldn’t look to Jewish political parties as potential allies, he feels.

Shot in the neck

For now, the Joint List has enough work to do in Knesset on behalf of the Arab population to make the question of whether it shares a common interest with the Jews somewhat beside the point.

Ayman Odeh has announced his vision of a 10-year plan to eliminate the economic gap between Arabs and Jews. (Late last week, however, the Prime Minister’s Office rejected the idea of having the new government adopt as a strategic goal the ending of social and economic gaps in Israel.) He is also deeply committed to finding a compromise that will prevent implementation of the government's plan to relocate the residents Umm al-Hiran.

Odeh also recently proposed, during a meeting with Netanyahu, a moratorium on demolishing homes built without building permits in Arab towns.

Odeh's positive attitude, and insistence on seeking solutions to problems rather than simply complaining about them, has gained him admirers. There is a conventional wisdom, correct or not, that Israel’s Arab Knesset members spend too much time playing the victim. But that’s not Ayman Odeh’s way.

One of those killed in October 2000 was Asil Asleh, a 17-year-old boy from the town of Arrabe, in the Lower Galilee. Asleh was an active member of the Jewish-Palestinian youth group Seeds of Peace. He was unarmed when he attended the demonstration on October 2, 2000, and was shot in the neck by police. His older sister, Nardine, a gynecologist, is Ayman Odeh's wife. When their second child was born, on what happened to be the anniversary of Asil’s birth, the couple decided to name him for his late uncle, whose final years saw him passionately involved in coexistence activities with people he refused to see as his enemies.

When he concluded his inaugural speech in the Knesset last month, Odeh explained that he and Nardine took the coincidence of his birthday as an omen. "We decided to call him Asil to indicate that we have chosen life. Whatever happens, our children and grandchildren will live together in this land, Arabs and Jews," he says "We have no choice but to choose life. Let us choose life.”

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