by Mitchell Plitnick
In 2015, Israel ushered in the most right-wing government in its history. But the same election produced another notable outcome: for the first time, Arab parties joined in a bloc with the sole Jewish-Arab party, Hadash, to form the Joint List. The bloc garnered 13 seats in the current Knesset, making it the third largest party and second largest in the opposition.
Ayman Odeh is the Chairperson of the Hadash party and the head of the Joint List. In these roles, MK Odeh has established himself as a respected leader, bringing a principled voice to the opposition while balancing the diverse and sometimes contradictory politics of his own List. It is not always easy, and MK Odeh has managed to keep his coalition together while positioning himself as a leader of a progressive movement within Israel. While other opposition leaders such as Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) have largely backed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in many of his policies dealing with both internal security and the Israel-Palestine conflict, MK Odeh has given voice not only to the views of minority groups within Israel, but also to moderates all over the world who support peace, Palestinian rights and a two-state solution.
In December, MK Odeh embarked on a groundbreaking visit to the United States, his first as well as the first of its kind for a political leader of Israel’s Palestinian community, where he met with many politicians, community leaders and activist groups. The trip, which was supported in part by the Foundation for Middle East Peace, demonstrated that there is a significant opposition in Israel, and that Palestinian citizens of Israel, like MK Odeh, believe themselves to be a part of the country and instrumental to charting a better future for both the citizens of Israel and the Palestinians living under occupation.
FMEP conducted this interview with MK Odeh between December 23, 2015 and January 2, 2016.
How do you respond to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statements, in the wake of the deadly attack in Tel Aviv on January 1, that he “will not permit lawlessness” in Arab areas of Israel and that he has enacted “a new plan to allocate funds and resources to dramatically increase police enforcement in Arab communities throughout Israel, namely in the Galilee, the Negev and the Triangle?”
Before addressing the words of PM Netanyahu, I wish to convey the pain I feel for the horrible shooting in the streets of Tel Aviv last Friday. Although the details of what happened are not yet clear, I condemn and denounce all violence against innocent civilians, and send my heartfelt condolences to the families of the dead and injured.
Prime Minister Netanyahu continues to renounce his responsibility for the situation and incites against an entire public, portraying the Arab population as criminals. Netanyahu’s political strength is based on his incitement against the Arab population on the day of the general elections, which has continued throughout his term in office.
The leaders of the Arab public in Israel, myself included, have repeatedly approached the government and authorities over recent years demanding to strengthen the law enforcement in the Arab towns and villages. Our main demand was the collecting of unauthorized firearms from our streets. The primary victims of these weapons are us, the Arab citizens. It is our children whose safety is in jeopardy in the streets of our towns. The Prime Minister has refused until now to allocate funds for this goal. But now, when a weapon is turned against Jews, he suddenly decides to confront the issue.
After the current media attention fades, we will continue to demand that the police consider us as equal citizens and will take responsibility for our personal safety. First and foremost, weapons must be collected from our streets.
Secretary of State John Kerry recently said that Israel is reversing the Oslo Process. Most understand this to mean creating facts on the ground with settlement expansion, among other measures. Meanwhile, many members of Congress are angry at the European Union for labeling products from settlements as such. How important is it that the rest of the world differentiate between Israel and its settlements?
One of the greatest accomplishments of the Palestinian struggle in recent years is the fact that most of the world, with the latest addition being Greece, has already recognized the Palestinian state. But this also results in the realization that recognition is not enough, and the world must bring real and substantial pressure to bear on Israel. The only solution to the current situation is the end of the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state, according to the 67 borders, alongside Israel. If the world truly believes in this, labeling settlement products is a first and essential step in order to make it clear to Israel that the international community does not accept the settlements as part of the state of Israel. The settlements are illegal according to international law, while even under Israeli law they are not part of sovereign Israel, and therefore labeling is a minimal requirement. Furthermore, we must not forget that the settlements themselves cause systematic damage to all areas of life and the human rights of Palestinians, and this is another essential and compelling reason for the international community to object and protest their existence.
Many Americans are very concerned about the recent video circulated by Im Tirzu calling leaders of peace and human rights NGOs foreign “plants.” Along with this, we see legislation in the Knesset to label such NGOs as foreign agents. What does this say about the current state of Israeli democracy?
Netanyahu’s extreme right wing government is bad and dangerous not only for the Arab public, but for all the citizens of Israel. One of the most flagrant examples is the ferocious incitement against the human rights organizations originating from the Prime Minister’s Office, which trickles down from there to the ministers and organizations that do their bidding, such as Im Tirzu. The incitement and demonization campaigns that were initially aimed solely at the Arab public and its elected leadership, are now spreading throughout Israeli society. The purpose of this incitement is to silence any expression of opposition or criticism against the government, and consequently human rights organizations have been turned into enemies of the state. This is a concerted attempt at total de-legitimization, in order to deafen and blind the Jewish public from the reality that these organizations expose.
I hope that now, especially now, more people will awaken and understand that when they turn a blind eye to incitement against an entire sector of the public, this incitement will, further down the road, reach them. We must stand together, Arabs and Jews, against the incitement and hatred, and offer a genuine alternative based on equality, peace and democracy.
The community of Palestinian citizens of Israel is often seen as separate from the larger Palestinian people. How do you see the relationship of Palestinian citizens of Israel to the rest of the Palestinian people, and how do you think this might help Israel and the Palestinians reach an agreement to end their long conflict?
As a Palestinian citizen of Israel, I have no difficulty with my national identity – I am a Palestinian, yet I do not turn my back on my citizenship. I believe that it is precisely this duality that enables us – and only us – to see the entire picture. I speak Hebrew and Arabic, read newspapers and watch the news in both languages. I have in-depth familiarity with the culture and history of both the Palestinian and Israeli societies, and it is precisely because of this that we can serve as a third and crucial party in talks between the sides. Currently, while the Israeli side has no desire or intention to reach a solution, I see our role as being in the public arena, as people who can speak to the conscience of Israelis and convince them that it is in the common interests of both peoples to end the occupation and establish an independent Palestinian state.
No Israeli government has ever included Arab parties or even explicitly mixed parties like Hadash. You have said that peace is not possible without the 20% minority of Arabs in the country. Do you see any possibility in the near future that mainstream parties like Labor (or Zionist Union) or Yesh Atid would ever agree to a governing coalition that included the Joint List?
We are determined to bring down Netanyahu’s extreme right government. It is indeed true that parties with a majority of Arab voters have never been members of a government coalition, yet there is broad agreement among the Arab public that the best period, in parliamentary terms, for the Arab population was the early ’90s when the Rabin government was based on support from outside the coalition from five MKs from Hadash and the Arab Democratic Party. If and when it will be possible to form a left wing coalition committed to choosing the path of peace, equality and building a real democracy – we will consider the options.
Can you talk about your idea for uniting the various marginalized communities in Israel to support democratic progress in the country?
There are many differences between the marginalized communities in Israeli society. We, the Arab citizens of Israel, are a minority nationality, and this of course distinguishes our struggle. But in social and economic matters, the difficulties and obstacles that we face are often very similar to those of other groups. The right is aware that alliances between marginalized communities may undermine and ultimately cause the downfall of their government, and therefore they try to pit one population against the other.
Even during the election campaign I reached out to the ultra-Orthodox community that also suffers from discrimination and severe poverty. True, there are still many barriers, and ultra-Orthodox parties now sit in an extreme right-wing government, but familiarity with the political processes in Israel leads me to think that this reality is in constant flux. Already, behind the scenes, the cooperation between us is expanding.
Several months ago, grassroots protests by Ethiopian Israelis erupted in protest against police violence. I chose to join them from the first night of demonstrations in the streets of Tel Aviv. I was taking a moral position as well as reacting to an issue that is close to my heart. But I was also acting on a desire to establish an alliance and partnership.
The path of change inevitably progresses through the formation of new alliances with marginalized populations, and in cultivating the deep conviction that our interests are not conflicting but rather common.
Republished, with permission, from the Foundation for Middle East Peace blog.