Israel's Joint Arab List Deserves the Plaudits, Not Its Leader

MK Ayman Odeh may be one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 leading global thinkers of 2015, but he owes his prominence to the Arab faction that made him a household name.

MK Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List.
David Bachar

The placement of Joint Arab List chairman MK Ayman Odeh on Foreign Policy magazine’s list of the top 100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2015 has aroused much interest among the Israeli-Arab community – especially among members of the younger, educated and open-minded generation whom Odeh and his colleagues claim to represent.

To the surprise of many, Odeh was not drowning in compliments following his recognition by the American publication. Instead, he was exposed to much public criticism, including from members of his own party and Arab political activists. Some of the criticism, especially on social network sites, was of a personal and poisonous nature, casting aspersions on his status and principles. Many wondered what the man who heads the communist Hadash party was doing in the world capital of capitalism, meeting with members of Congress and U.S. government representatives, when his own party has dubbed the United States “the head of the snake.”

Many also complained that the well-oiled public propaganda machine in the United States and Israel would use his selection and U.S. visit to praise Israeli democracy, which brings Odeh – an Arab opposition member – to Congress and the White House.

Those riding to Odeh’s defense talked about the urgent need to break barriers and raise awareness all over the world, including in the White House; to introduce the concept of Palestinian-Israelis to the world; to recount the behavior of Israeli governments over time toward it; and to highlight the discrimination and glaring racism that excludes this group from the center of the public discourse and pushes them to the edges of that hallowed democracy.

One can argue with both sides – and that’s a good thing. But something has been overlooked and is worth considering: The parameters by which Foreign Policy magazine put Odeh on its prestigious list, especially given the circumstances and prevailing mood within Israeli-Arab society this past year.

MK Odeh indeed represents a new, younger generation within the Israeli-Arab political sphere. He is a politician who was elected first and foremost transparently and democratically by his party, after years of Sisyphean work on the ground. His job wasn’t handed to him through the whim of a supreme leader or an old boys’ network, or after a dubious primary in which he promised jobs to cronies.

But as a young politician with many ambitions, good intentions and the desire to implement change, Odeh knows he is only at the beginning of his journey – and it is a long trek, filled with many obstacles from both within and externally. He has a long way to go before he can leave his mark and enjoy a level of consensus within both his party and on the Israeli-Arab street. Anyone who lives and breathes Arab society and its politics knows that things don’t depend only on him and his behavior, but also on the political and diplomatic atmosphere in Israel in general, and Arab society in particular.

There were other promising Arab politicians who preceded Odeh. They, too, tried to make their mark – people like Azmi Bishara, Mohammad Barakeh, Ahmad Tibi and Sheik Ra’ad Salah. They were also young and full of promise, each with the will to bring change. Each had his own worldview, but in the end none really managed to break through the political glass ceiling and influence the decision-making process in Israel.

The main change in Arab politics this past year was not summed up by Odeh’s image, but rather, the establishment of the Joint Arab List in the March Knesset election. This was a list established in the wake of Arab public pressure and the fear that some Arab parties would disappear because of the rise in the Knesset threshold to 3.25 percent.

Its founding was considered a political breakthrough, in the shadow of a bleeding and divided Arab world, and the increasingly racist discourse in Israel. This development impacted politics, diplomacy and the Israeli media, and challenged the right-wing – prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to warn that “the Arabs are voting in droves” on Election Day.

If it weren’t for the establishment of the Joint Arab List, neither Odeh nor a number of his colleagues would have received a platform to break into the Israeli and international consciousness. It is almost certain that they would still be wallowing in fights and internal rivalries, not captivating the media.

But America is America. They love to crown kings, create stars and dole out ratings, while ignoring the context and public standing behind the star. Foreign Policy magazine would have been more accurate if it had awarded the honor to the list headed by Ayman, rather than to Ayman, who heads the list.