Opinion

Ayman Odeh, the Israeli Left’s Natural Leader

Ayman Odeh outside the Israeli President's residence, September 22, 2019.
Emil Salman

Ayman Odeh apologized to his followers Wednesday for seeming to take a break from politics on that stormy day, which marked the deadline for submitting party lists to the Central Election Committee. He explained that he had more important business than handling last-minute deals, the stench from which will remain with us for a long time. He had something more important to say, for which he thought every lawmaker should stop in their tracks to think about.

“Poet Leah Goldberg died 50 years ago today,” he tweeted. “Her words are no less exciting today than when she wrote then.” He then quoted from one of her more familiar poems:

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 56Haaretz

“For one who does not believe

It’s hard to live this year

The fields ask for a blessing

The sea asks for faith

And you – you ask for nothing.”

It was not, of course, a break from politics that Odeh took that day; on the contrary, this was one of his most political tweets (even he added, as if he was winking, that “this isn’t really a break.”)

It was a delicate courtship of left-wing voters, and particularly those from Meretz. And judging by the thousands of likes and nearly 200 shares, numbers that left-wing leaders can only dream of, Odeh’s tweet was a big success.

He understood the magnitude of the hour, and was confidently taking his place at the head of the camp, careful not to lose touch with his voter base or angering them. For this reason there was no real option to unite the Joint List and Meretz, a scenario that the Jewish left discussed a lot, as though it depended solely on the good will of Nitzan Horowitz and Tamar Zandberg.

Odeh knows well that realizing his vision, including the full integration of Arab citizens in Israeli society, must be done at the pace of the Joint List’s Arab voters. If just two years ago it seemed it was in Meretz’s hands to become a Jewish-Arab party, now it’s totally clear that Odeh is the one making the big bang on the left.

“The Joint List’s platform is the country’s real left, not only from the standpoint of size – not Labor with its six seats nor Meretz – but also from the standpoint of its platform,” Odeh said in an interview with Haaretz’s Ravit Hecht, published this week. “In the near future the Joint List must be maintained, while also building a popular Jewish-Arab movement,” he said.

Now that Meretz and Labor have banded together and don’t face any real danger, Odeh wants to take a small bite out of its electorate, not to swallow them, just a little bite to complete a 15-seat slate and carry out his vision to define the Joint List as the real social-political left.

And he’s doing so the same way left-wing leaders have worked through the generations, using the right quote and the right moment, and from the right poem. It still moves the camp to tears as long as the one doing the quoting isn’t one of their own MKs. Because the love they’re showing Odeh exposes the total disgust of left-wing voters with parties, with Meretz and Labor, and their top politicians.

Leah Goldberg isn’t the only poet Odeh likes to quote, but also Mahmoud Darwish, who tells of how he looks at immigrants arriving in Haifa and taking off their shoes to feel the holy land beneath their feet, but that he doesn’t have to take off his shoes because he has no doubts about his ties to the land.

When Odeh repeats the great Palestinian poet’s verses, he speaks about an identity that is not in doubt. And that’s exactly what the Zionist left has lost. Thus Ayman Odeh is the one who will lead the camp in a few years and that will be a good thing, a very good thing.