Israeli Arab Leader Angers J Street by Criticizing Labor Party

J Street denies president refused to shake Aymen Odeh's hand after lawmaker accused Zionist Union of failing to take steps to stop violence in a Bedouin village.

MK Ayman Odeh (Joint List) at the protest against demolition orders in the northern village of Maghar, January 24, 2017.
Gil Eliahu

While addressing J Street’s national conference in Washington last week, Joint List leader MK Ayman Odeh lashed out at the Zionist Union, saying the center-left party "failed" in its role as the opposition, and ignoring a request by J Street not to criticize the party.

As Odeh left the podium following his speech, the visibly angry J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami demonstrably did not shake Odeh’s hand, sources present said.

>> Get all updates on Israel, the Palestinians and the Jewish World: Download our free App, and Subscribe >>

Odeh attended the conference alongside lawmakTamar Zandberg (Meretz) and Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Union). Both Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog and the party’s No. 2, Tzipi Livni, had been invited but begged off attending.

As a result, the non-Zionist Odeh, attending the conference for the first time, was actually the most senior Israeli lawmaker in attendance.

Odeh and J Street had several disagreements at the conference. During his visit to the United States, Odeh attended the conference of Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish group that supports boycott, disinvestment and sanctions against Israel, which has been gaining strength. This group is anathema to J Street, which considers itself Zionist and pro-Israel.

Before his address, Ben-Ami asked Odeh not to attack Zionist Union in his speech, but Odeh nonetheless did so. Odeh spoke at length about January's events in Umm al-Hiran, where an Arab citizen and a policeman were killed as security forces secured the area for home demolitions. Odeh himself suffered a slight head injury in the fray.

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami in 2015.
J Street

Odeh also spoke about the unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev. He said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy was to incite against Arabs and to portray them as enemies of the state, rather than citizens.

Odeh then decried the Labor party’s inability to prevent all this.

“The Labor Party did nothing to stop the order to destroy Umm al-Hiran and leave its residents homeless,” Odeh said.

“It has abandoned the human rights organizations and civil society groups that the right-wing parties attack. And it has failed to provide any real leadership toward ending the occupation and resisting the extremist agenda of the right-wing government.”

“They have called themselves the ‘Zionist camp.’ The right wing calls itself the ‘national camp.’ We, Arabs and Jews together, are building a new camp, a democratic camp that has already begun to show the world what real, principled, and strong opposition looks like.

“This is the time for a real opposition — principled, fearless,” Odeh said. “An opposition led by a Labor party that is a shadow of the right is no opposition at all.”

Sources who heard Odeh’s speech said that Ben-Ami was visibly angered by the remarks and failed to shake Odeh's hand when he alighted the podium.

“It was very obvious,” one observer said. “He was three meters away from him and just ignored him.”

In the press statements issued during subsequent days of the conference, Odeh’s participation was downplayed.

Odeh would not respond for this report.

Ben-Ami issued the following statement: "J Street (and I personally) were very happy to host Ayman Odeh at the conference and strongly value a close working relationship with the Joint List. I have enormous respect for him and J Street shares his belief that Israel must be a country that protects and promotes equal civil rights for all its citizens regardless of race and religion.

"J Street does not get involved in internal Israeli politics, so our request of all Israeli speakers – including those we’ve had from the Likud, Yesh Atid, Labor, Meretz, Kulanu and the Joint List – is to leave domestic disputes at home and to bring to the conference issues that relate to Israeli policy and U.S.-Israel relations.

"I was very pleased to see MK Odeh after his speech, shook his hand and wished him safe travels as he headed to the airport. Certainly on my end personally and on J Street’s side organizationally, there is nothing but gratitude for his participation in the conference, and we hope that he will join us next year and that the Joint List will be represented annually at our gatherings.

He added: "J Street is a pro-Israel organization that believes strongly that Israel can be both the national home of the Jewish people, fulfilling the dream of a Jewish homeland while also being democratic and guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens. We don’t expect the Joint List to join us in working to fulfill the dreams of Zionism’s founders, but that is no barrier to working together to achieve a future that guarantees peace, security and justice for both Jews and Palestinians."