Israeli Election: What Do Israeli Arabs Want?

Ayman Odeh (1)
Ayman Odeh, leader of the joint Arab ticket, talks about equality, peace and a lasting settlement. Ayman Odeh's Campaign

Until this election cycle there were four Arab parties represented in the Israeli parliament. They were very different, ranging from: the Chadash party, (originally the Israeli Communist party), which has always included Jews and Arabs; Balad-Ta’al, two highly nationalistic, but secular parties; and the Islamic party, whose platform is reflected in its name.

Previous attempts to unite these parties into a single list failed, due to the large ideological differences between the groups. However, the last Knesset passed a law, sponsored by the party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, that raised the threshold of votes a party is required to receive before it can be admitted to the Knesset.

Many believe that Lieberman’s unstated goal to was to push the Arab parties out of the Knesset. Indeed, in a debate held before this interview, Lieberman turned to the Odeh and said, “You are here for now.”

At the time of writing, polls show the United Arab List receiving 12 places in the upcoming Knesset, although many believe that that number will grow to as many as 15 seats as the existence of the United List will result in an increase in Arab Israeli participation in this election. For the Center-Left to win this election it is clear that the joint Arab slate will be key—minimally in blocking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ability to build a coalition.

I met the leader of Hadash who heads the joint Arab effort, Ayman Odeh, toward the end of long day. The fatigue was visible on his face, as well as on the faces of his weary campaign staff. With just two weeks to go until the election, there was no time to lose for this 40-year-old, who was born and grew up in Haifa, has a law degree and is married with two children.

Odeh has the personality of a natural politician. He immediately put me at ease. In a Clintonian manner, he knew how to make me feel that (at least for the moment) I was the center of his world. The mission he accepted—i.e. holding together his diverse coalition and becoming a significant player on the larger Israeli political scene, will be a challenge.  Here is a condensed  transcript of our conversation that took place in Hebrew:

Tell me a little about your background and why you got into national politics?

Odeh: I was a member of the Haifa City Council when I was 23 years old, which made me the youngest city councilman in Israel. When I began my political career, I identified with Malcolm X. After two or three years, I evolved—and not to a small degree—because of my service on the council in the city of Haifa, which is the most liberal multicultural yet homogenous city in Israel.

As a result of that experience I was transformed from being someone who believed that either the Jews or the Arabs could survive here, to someone who thought that Arabs and Jews must work together. I began to feel that I now must follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, who believed in working together.

So I began to look for the good in all the residents. I understood that what is generally good for people in distress is good for the Arab population; that democracy is good for the whole country, including the Arab population. I learned that social justice benefits the whole population, including the Arab citizens.

This attitude shift helped me connect to all sorts of groups. Four years ago, I sat for a whole month on Rothschild Boulevard (the place where the Israeli social protest movement began). I believe I was the only Arab to do so. I was the one who helped develop the slogan “The people demand social justice.” At the first demonstration, people were initially chanting all sorts of slogans. But in Egypt the people had already been demonstrating, shouting “The people want.…” so I borrowed the phrase “the people want” and added “social justice.”

My ideological transformation was part of my political maturation, choosing to become part of the greater whole. This does not mean that now I ignore the specific needs of the Arabs in Israel. On the contrary, as part of the greater whole, I can better address the needs of the Arab community.

Now, in every party meeting of our Joint List I say, yes, we will address the needs of Arab Israelis, but not only the needs of Arab Israelis. We will have 15 seats in the upcoming Knesset. We will raise our hands in support for the handicapped, for the pensioners, for all of the weaker sectors.

Do you think the four parties you represent who came together will be able to work together—minimally for the medium term, not to mention for the long-term?

Odeh: When our four parties began to work together we discovered that our positions are actually very close to each other. Together we developed both long-range and more immediate plans. The long-term plans talk about peace, based on the U.N. Resolutions: equal rights for everyone in the country; social justice for everyone; and equality between people in the State of Israel. As to our short-term achievable goals, I am developing a plan, which the other groups support. I have a ten-year plan to close the socioeconomic gaps between Jews and Arabs.

We have many disagreements on the nationalist level. I, Ayman, will not give up on any of my national rights. I will continue to speak about them. However, there are some things that we do not need to fight over—for example, equal civil rights, employment in general, employment of women, elimination of violence, recognition of the recognized Bedouin villages in the South and bus service to the underserved Arab towns. I put forth 90 new civil programs, and I have expert opinions from economists who agree that within two years the country would directly benefit from my plan.

When I speak about our national rights, people respond by saying, “How scary.” But it is not scary. It would be good for both of us. I tell you, I want two nations here by choice. I want two cultures here. That is good for me. It adds something important for me. We are all richer because there are two nations and two cultures here. Let’s focus on the positive things that unite us and not what separates us.

There was a recent Ha’aretz Newspaper poll showing that 70 percent of the Arab population in the country are more interested in matters of economics and daily life than questions about the Palestinian issue. How do you respond to those findings?

I will not run away from the nationalistic issue. Our society, our joint society will never be a moral society as long as we occupy another people, not only from a moral and democratic point of view but also economically. Instead of wasting money in the occupied territories, money should be spent here in Israel for the good of all of us—for education, for health and for social programs. However, all of what I just said here is secondary to the fact that the Palestinian people have a right, just like all people in the world, to have their own state.

What do you respond to Israelis who say, “Yes, we agree with you theoretically, but if you look at the state of the Arab world at the moment, this is not the time to make drastic any changes?”

Odeh: Let’s look at the reality of the world around Israel. Israel made peace with Egypt, the largest Arab State. There are militant Islamists there, but there is also law. There are agreements and also defense arrangements there. So, was it better to make an agreement with Egypt or not?

Now let’s look at Jordan, the country with which we have the longest border. Jordan is home to members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Jordan, there are Salafim, and there are even some members of ISIS.

However, there is a monarchy that runs an independent government. In Jordan there is law and there is security cooperation. Where there is law, and where there is government, there is security. Therefore, I believe it is better for there to be clear borders and independence.

The Palestinian Arabs accept the framework that they will get a state on 22 percent of the land that they dreamed of. I believe that you cannot push them any further to the wall. There is an historic opportunity. Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization] is a pragmatic person, a peace loving person, in everyone’s opinion—other than the opinion of the Israeli government.

While Abu Mazen [Abbas] might have the image of someone who wants peace, doesn’t he have the image of being a weak leader?

Odeh: Abu Mazen has proved he can control the West Bank. There have been very, very difficult events for the Palestinian people, and despite these outbreaks and the ongoing occupation Abu Mazen has shown he can maintain order—even though in reality, that is not his job. If he successfully brings accomplishment to his people, his position will be strengthened. He is weak because he does not succeed. It is the Israeli government who prefer him weak.

Why do you think during the last few years there has been such a rise in racist actions against Arabs in Israel?

Odeh: I will explain something that might sound backwards. I believe that since the Bar-Ilan speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the right wing has understood that there is no choice (i.e. there will have to be a Palestinian State.) This realization by the right wing has fueled racism towards the Arab citizens of Israel. MK [Member of the Knesset] Avigdor Lieberman speaks every Monday and Thursday against the Arab citizens of Israel. Yet even Lieberman, when he repeats his slogan “Um-El -Fahem [an Arab Israeli town] to Palestine,” is implicitly recognizing that there will be a Palestinian State.

In 2006, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that the main danger to Israel was not the Arabs in the territories but, rather, the Arabs inside Israel. In some ways I think he is correct. The Arab population does not want to turn inward and be isolated, it could throw all of its weight into the political process.

The Arab population should not sit on the side and wait until 50 percent of the Israeli population is convinced about some of our views. We can be satisfied if we are able to convince 30 percent of the Jewish population. Then together with our 20 percent we will be at least 50 percent. This is the reason the right wing attacks us.

All we have to do is become determined to get involved in the political game and the right wing will be in big trouble.

I have to ask the question that everyone asks—If you are asked by [chairman of the Labor Party and Leader of the Opposition] Yitzhak Herzog to join the government, will you?  

Odeh: The most important thing is that the Netanyahu government, which has been so bad for all parts of the Israeli population, must come to an end. However, at the same time, we are not in Herzog’s pocket. If and when we get to that junction [where Herzog approaches us], then we will decide.

Assuming you have approximately 15 seats—which is (more or less) the number people expect you to have—what do you think you can accomplish?

Odeh: If Yitzhak Herzog is the one picked to form the government, he should have the courage to rely on us. His party (actually it was the Labor party, under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin) had good experiences when they relied on us as a blocking guard. We want the next government to be one that seeks peace and equality. We plan to bring our population what they deserve.

If there is one large coalition government compromising Labor and Likud, we will be the head of the opposition. Then, for the first time in history, the head of the opposition will receive foreign visitors. I will bring up the issues facing the Arab population to those who visit.

The head of the opposition speaks after the Prime Minister in the Knesset and receives government briefings. All of this will happen for the first time in history—That will be a good position for us to be in.

Historian Marc Schulman is the editor of historycentral.com. An archive of his recent daily reports from Tel-Aviv can be found here. A longer version of this interview can be found at historycentral. 

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