Is Israel Ready for the New Arab Leader Ayman Odeh?

The rise of the Joint List chairman presents a unique opportunity to improve Jewish-Arab ties.

Don Futterman
Don Futterman
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Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh in the Knesset during its swearing-in session, March 31, 2015.
Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh in the Knesset during its swearing-in session, March 31, 2015.Credit: Emil Salman
Don Futterman
Don Futterman

The rise of Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List of Arab parties – which became the third-largest faction in the Knesset when it garnered 13 seats in this month's elections – presents a unique opportunity to improve Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.

This week, Odeh led a four-day march by Bedouin of the Negev and their supporters to the Jerusalem residence of President Reuven Rivlin. In the president's absence (he was attending the funeral of the first prime minister of Singapore) Odeh presented an alternative plan for Bedouin resettlement in the Negev to Mrs. Rivlin.

In making the issue of unrecognized Bedouin villages his first priority since the elections, Odeh’s message was not just that he cares about Bedouin children who have no plumbing or electricity, but that under his leadership Arab Knesset members will put social issues and the needs of their constituents at the top of their agenda, rather than waving the flag of Palestinian statehood or anti-Zionist posturing. In choosing an issue involving competing land claims, Odeh also signaled that he is not afraid to tackle politically loaded subjects.

But the transformation Odeh seeks to catalyze goes further than reprioritizing. Odeh wants genuine engagement with and by Israel’s Arab citizens in determining the course of this country and its policies. When Odeh says he will fight for equality for immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union as well as for Israel’s Palestinian citizens, and that he is willing to cross any party lines to find allies for this cause, he is arguing that a Knesset member is responsible for all Israelis, not just his ethnic camp. Implied in this discourse is a critique not only of Jewish hegemony in the Knesset, but of the longstanding practices of Arab Knesset members.

Odeh appears to be counting on broad – if dormant – Jewish support for equality for Israel’s Arab citizens. He will have to navigate between Palestinian nationalists in Israel’s Arab communities and Jewish nationalist charges – whether stated overtly or implied – that Israel’s Arabs are a Fifth Column.

But, like author and screenwriter Sayed Kashua, Odeh seems singularly attuned to the complexities of both Arab and Jewish identity in Israel; he gets it. Leading the Bedouin march in his baseball cap and middle-aged paunch, Odeh looked like nothing so much as a typical (Jewish) Israeli father out on a nature hike. He comes across the small screen as thoughtful and affable.

In the Knesset, Odeh will have to overcome a history of anti-Israel grandstanding that has become a shortcut to re-election for Arab parliamentarians. Among the public, he will have to overcome the low expectations Arab voters have of their representatives' ability to deliver tangible benefits and to transform the perceptions among many Jewish Israelis of his faction, shaped by the reputations of some of his Joint List partners. Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al), for example, is an effective parliamentarian, but one that is identified with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. Haneen Zoabi of the separatist Balad party, who famously took part in the Mavi Marmara flotilla to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza in an act some here consider treasonous, seems committed to outraging Jewish sensibilities.

Jewish parliamentarians will also have to play a role, by permitting progress in their ties with their Arab counterparts. They will have to set aside the catcalls and race-baiting (means they use to rally the right-wing base), and recognize that Odeh is offering something new: genuine discourse without demagoguery. Honest engagement and discussion about the future of Jewish and Arab Israelis would benefit both populations.

The hopes of Israel’s Arab voters were raised in this election, and while there was never an expectation that the Joint List would be a coalition partner, or even act as a cohesive unit after the election, there were expectations that voting might produce some concrete change for our Arab citizens. If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu really wants to apologize for his Election Day anti-Arab incitement, he can engage Odeh and his colleagues in genuine policy discourse, addressing social services for sure, but also issues of state and identity.

If our new government fails to seize this unique opportunity, the confidence of Israel’s Arab citizens in our democracy will be eroded and Jewish-Arab relations will sour.

Don Futterman is the program director for Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private American Foundation working to strengthen civil society in Israel. He can be heard weekly on TLV1’s The Promised Podcast.

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