Opinion

Bibi Is the Past. Ayman Odeh – Lawmaker, Israeli, Unavoidable – Is the Future

Odeh, as a child the only Muslim in a Christian school in a Jewish city in the state of Israel, is 10 times the Israeli Bibi is. One day, he may be 10 times the prime minister

Israeli Arab politician Ayman Odeh casts his vote in Haifa, Israel, September 17, 2019
Ariel Schalit,AP

Ayman Odeh is 10 times the Israeli I am.

Not just because I'm an immigrant and he was born here. And not just because he has the kind of sociological X-ray vision and political second sight which are the province of those born into an intelligent, culturally savvy, and discriminated-against minority within a self-satisfied, tunnel-visioned majority.

Ayman Odeh is, in fact, 10 times the Israeli that Benjamin Netanyahu is. 

Odeh sees right through him. And Bibi can't take it.

The 44-year-old Odeh, as a child the only Muslim student in a Christian school in a Jewish city in the state of Israel, is the chair of Israel's third-largest political party, the Joint List, which took more than one of every 10 votes in the most recent election. 

As Netanyahu, aging before our very eyes, seeks with mounting desperation to offset eroding electoral support with unsheeted racism, Odeh's incisive pragmatism - once the hallmark of successful Israeli politicians - is driving the sweat-soaked prime minister stone nuts.

The rising strength of the Joint List, most of whose leaders and voters are Palestinian citizens of Israel, has been a key element in denying Netanyahu a Knesset majority, something he hasn't had since way back last Christmas.

Netanyahu has done his best – which, in his case, is also his worst – to pump hatred of Odeh and the Joint List and transform it into electoral gold. So far, though, the prime minister's storied alchemy has drifted into lead balloon territory. 

Ayman Odeh picks at the Likud party's attempt at filming in Arab polling stations, Jerusalem, September 11, 2019
OIivier Fitoussi

When Bibi's under pressure, Bibi makes mistakes. And, thanks in no small part to Ayman Odeh, Bibi is under pressure he's never known before.

Take Sunday, for example.

Netanyahu, addressing a Likud "emergency rally" to warn of the perils he saw in having the Joint List play any role in statecraft. Lying through his spittle, Netanyahu described the party, and thus its voters, such:

"At exactly the time when we were at war, when we were being attacked by rockets, when our citizens were sitting in bomb shelters and our soldiers were risking their lives, you were holding talks with those same MKs who support terrorism and want to annihilate the state." 

If the Joint List tacitly supports a centrist minority government led by Kahol Lavan chief Benny Gantz, he continued, crowds will "celebrate in Tehran, Ramallah, and Gaza,the way they celebrate after every terror attack." Such a government, Netanyahu told the sparse crowd - overwhelmingly male and, yes, aging - would be an "historic national terror attack on the state of Israel" and an "existential threat."

Odeh's response was two-fold, and showed just how deeply and effortlessly the Joint List leader knows how to get under Netanyahu's thinning skin.

On his Twitter account, Odeh posted a photograph in which he's reading to his pajama-clad children, cuddling around him.

"At the end of a long day," his caption read, "these three existential threats need to be put to bed."

The tweet followed another, in which Odeh sent a spear calmly into the heart of the history-minded Netanyahu's tarnished and already fading legacy:

"There'll be no 'Benjamin' freeway interchange, or 'Netanyahu High School.' This evening he sealed his legacy as a bitter criminal who didn't know how to lose, just how to attack and incite against those he was supposed to serve."

"All of us, Arabs and our Jewish partners, will breathe a sigh of relief the day he leaves, and we'll continue to struggle for peace, equality, democracy and social justice."

In fact, Netanyahu's unabashedly racist speech may have had an effect opposite to what the Likud leader had intended.

Netanyahu hinted at treasonous scheming between three former army chiefs of staff, all leaders of the Kahol Lavan party, and the Joint List, while fighting raged this month in Gaza and southern Israel. As Netanyahu tried to silence the booing he himself had incited, he may have actually burnished Odeh's standing and credibility as a public servant – and a full-fledged citizen of Israel – rather than as a negligible, avoidable, dismissible critic.

By Netanyahu's own account, Odeh and his Joint List colleague Ahmed Tibi were meeting not with the Islamic Jihad and Hamas, but with three former heads of the Israeli military.

Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, gestures during an an election campaign event in Tira, northern Israel September 5, 2019.
AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

At the same time, as Odeh's posts demonstrated, the most radical element of the Joint List leader's policy is his willingness to step out of a framework of dogmatic radicalism.

He has won wide respect in championing pressing concerns of Arab Israelis on such issues as rampant violence and firearms proliferation in Arab towns and villages.

He has also broken ground in a campaign to allow him as Joint List chair to serve as the first Arab leader of the opposition in Knesset, a position which would entitle him to monthly top-level security briefings and the right of response to major policy addresses by the prime minister.

Most significantly, Odeh said after the September election, the position of opposition leader is "an important platform to meet with the prime minister and meet with world leaders and tell them about the Nation-State Law," the Netanyahu right's most controversial and racist legislative achievement. "Finally, there will be an opposition."

Odeh has made clear that the Israel he envisions is one of pro-active cooperation between Jews and Arabs, and movement toward equality for all its citizens. He has, for example, appealed to the ultra-Orthodox Mizrachi Shas party to work together on social issues affecting their respective constituencies.

His message has clearly resonated with a mounting number of Jewish Israelis.

Already during the 2015 elections, former Knesset speaker Avrum Burg, once among the leading figures in Labor, announced his support for the Joint List. Speaking to AP at the time, Burg offered a prediction for the future:

"We will witness a new landscape for the entire democratic camp in Israel, in which Israeli Arabs are no longer excluded as pariahs."

Ayman Odeh? He's 10 times the Israeli that Bibi is. One day, he may be 10 times the prime minister.