Netanyahu Must Look Israeli Arab Society Straight in the Face, Not Flee From It

Ronit Marzan
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MK Ayman Odeh films Netanyahu to protest his claim that Arabs are trying to 'steal the election,' September 11, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Ronit Marzan

“Listen Abu Yair, incitement has a price,” Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh began an interview with Israeli media outlets Wednesday. Apart from the catchy Hebrew rhyme of what will surely be remembered as a key punch line of the September 2019 election, there’s also a direct cultural and political message for Benjamin Netanyahu and Yair, his eldest son.

In Arab society and culture, the family’s collective identity is afforded respect and transcends individual identity. Parents are known by an honorific composed of “father” or “mother” and the eldest son’s first name. The eldest son is considered the father’s right-hand man, and together they are responsible for the personal safety and the social and economic well-being of the entire family. The eldest son, and all his siblings, are expected to surrender to the patriarchal hierarchy, to honor their father and to obey him unquestioningly.

Odeh’s use of the term Abu Yair seems aimed at implying that in the relationship between Netanyahu and his eldest son there is neither respect nor obedience, a situation that extracts from the prime minister a steep political price. Odeh is also implying that whereas in Arab society individual identity is subsumed into familial identity and collective interest override individual interest, in the Netanyahu family the situation is reversed: The personal interests of Benjamin and Yair Netanyahu surpass the interests of the Likud party and far surpass the interests of the Israeli collective, which includes both Arabs and Jews.

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In friendly conversations between Jews and Arabs, it’s not unusual to refer to either a Jew or an Arab by the name of the eldest son. This usually reflects a relationship of mutual respect and a desire to create a relaxed, intimate atmosphere among the participants in the conversation. When Odeh calls Netanyahu Abu Yair, perhaps he is alluding to the prospect of a close and respectful relationship with the Arab community that Netanyahu scorned, and how his unbridled incitement against Arabs actually spurred them to go to the polls and express their disgust with the Netanyahu family.

Odeh’s relationship with the symbols of Israeli governance – the government, the Knesset and the presidency – is complex. As an Ahmadi Muslim, he has an obligation to uphold the principles of tolerance, peace and brotherhood; as a Palestinian Arab, he has an obligation to protect and defend the Palestinian national identity and as an Israeli citizen, he has an obligation to obey the laws of the state and the right to demand equal rights. This complexity certainly affects his political rhetoric, and is not always pleasing to Israeli ears. But a close reading of Odeh’s writing and speech reveals a desire to join the official, democratic and egalitarian conversation, not to stand apart or withdraw from it.

A few examples: Odeh recognizes the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in the State of Israel, and is willing to stand up, not walk out, when the national anthem is played at the swearing-in of the Knesset. He writes Facebook posts in Arabic, Hebrew and English, to create an open dialogue with Jewish Israelis. He supports a join struggle for the character of Israeli society and is even willing to create a joint list that will represent Arabs and Jews, secular and religious, residents of the center and the periphery. He began his parliamentary career working on behalf of marginalized populations, such as the Bedouin in the unrecognized villages, Ethiopian immigrants, displaced and homeless Arabs and Jews, and even held meeting with the president and the prime minister on these issues. He fiercely objects to the attempts by Balad and the northern and southern branches of the Islamic Movement in Israel to introduce direct elections to the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee. He cites Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. as inspirations and, like them, chooses to wage a civic and political battle by the ballot, not the bullet.

Odeh’s symbolic act last week, of shoving his cellphone camera near the prime minister’s face, during a Knesset debate on a bill to allow cameras in polling stations, might reflect a desperate wish on his part to be heard, to be close and not excluded, to cause Abu Yair to look him and Israeli Arab society straight in the face, rather than fleeing from it in fear.

The increase in Arab voter turnout in Tuesday’s election could be seen as a kind of revenge for the racist and exclusionary language of the Netanyahu-led right. But it might also reflecting a desire for a partnership with Israeli Jews based solely on merit and self-respect.

Israeli Arabs gave their Joint List another chance to prove itself worthy of their trust, making it the third-largest party in the Knesset after Kahol Lavan and Likud. It is time for the Arab MKs to take this historic opportunity to push themselves into the government coalition and not suffice with the prestigious and important role of opposition chairman. Odeh would be happy to assume this post – not for security reasons related to him being called a “traitor” and a “fifth column” – but out of the desire to feel that he is not feared, that he is trusted and seen as a legitimate part of the state.

The Israeli Arab community, which accounts for 20 percent of the population, should be an active, not a passive, partner in the effort to bolster the country’s civil, social and economic strength, and the two national identities, Jewish and Arab, can live side by side. Abu Yair should stop fearing Abu Tayeb (Ayman Odeh).

Ronit Marzan is a researcher in Palestinian politics and society in the University of Haifa’s political science department and a fellow at the university’s Chaikin Geostrategy Institute.