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What the Rage About Odeh Is Really About - Palestinian Nationalism

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List, and his children cast his ballot for the parliamentary election at a polling station in the northern city of Haifa in 2015.
Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List, and his children cast his ballot for the parliamentary election at a polling station in the northern city of Haifa in 2015.Credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

Much of the left is mad at Joint List chair Ayman Odeh or disappointed with his verbal radicalization. The exception is a marginal, elitist part that never took the trouble to tap into the vein of the society in which it lives. As a result it has lost all its struggles, starting with the struggle against the occupation. Above all, Odeh is trying to rehabilitate his political career and differentiate himself from United Arab List head Mansour Abbas, who won the golden ticket of Jewish-Arab cooperation that had Odeh’s name on it early in his career.

That’s the source of this deep rage: The secular, educated, broad-minded leader, well-versed in classical music and poetry; the model of secularism, liberalism and progress, who looks and talks just like us, lost to a traditional leader of a religious movement that includes conservative activists who fiercely shake off any liberal value lest it accidentally adhere to them. This loss is painful because it recalls the failure of the liberal project in the Middle East. Worse yet, it serves as an additional reminder of the deep lack of understanding of this project’s agents, who refuse to read the regional map and to acknowledge the cultural geography spread before them.

Both Palestinian and Jewish societies are religious, or at least sympathetic to tradition. Other than a few developments such as the secularization of public spaces on religious holidays or the acceptance of LGBT people – something that has not yet happened in Palestinian society – both of them uphold conservative values.

Both societies are suspicious of and deterred by progressive ideas, which in the best case are viewed as rootless naivete and at worst a show of privileged hypocrisy or even an effort to erase human nature, no less. Each society protects, like precious gems, its distinct religious or tribal identity, which is determined top-down: by virtue of blood, tribe and family – in other words unalterable identity that is not subject to change, fusion or merger. And the academic explanations of the scholarly liberals are of no avail. Their wares in this area attract a few determined buyers, but too few to have an effect.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that it’s actually religious movements that created a sustainable model. See, for example, the first term of Shas party leader Arye Dery as interior minister and his good relationship with Arab society in Israel. Another example is the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel today. Although it is by no means perfect, this model has practical qualities that probably surpass the blueprints drawn up by the architects of peace on behalf of the liberal, secular left, which failed in its implementation of these ideas on the ground.

It was not the left but rather Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party that brought Mansour Abbas into the government, preparing the way by holding concrete negotiations with him, regardless of the reasons, rather than treating him as a “mistress,” as Odeh said Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz did to Odeh.

Nevertheless, there is another point that must be admitted honestly: While Abbas had no difficulty in openly choosing a pragmatic path, despite being seen as the leader of a religious movement – in roughly the same way Haredi politicians behaved in the pre-Netanyahu era – Odeh and his Joint List partners have not given up the Palestinian national component. Indeed, over the years they have actually increased its share in their identity, particularly against the background of the weakening of communism, which destroyed the cornerstones of Hadash, one of the three predominantly Arab parties that currently comprise the Joint List.

Odeh’s friends on the left – those who support him and those who are disappointed in him – cannot give him the goods he wants: an end to the occupation, the evacuation of the settlements and the establishment of a Palestinian state, within one set of borders or another, even if they think that’s the correct and just solution. When Odeh reiterates these demands, he is echoing a different failure.

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