Until this election cycle there were three 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 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”. As of this time, polls show the United Arab List receiving 12 places in the upcoming Knesset. Although many observers 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. If the Center-Left is going to win this Israeli election, it is clear that the Joint Arab will key – minimally in blocking Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ability to build a coalition.
I met Ayman Odeh, towards the end of long day. The fatigue was visible on his face, as well as on the faces of his weary campaign staff. With 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 full transcript of our conversation that took place in Hebrew:
QUESTION: Tell me a little about your background and why you got into National Politics?
AYMAN 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 Malcom X. At the beginning of my political career I spoke a great deal about the Naqba (the Israeli-Arab name for Israel’s War of Independence) and our historic rights to this land. I read the books of Alex Hailey; not just Roots, but also the biography of Malcom X. I liked their authenticity. 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, multi-cultural, and yet, homogenous city in Israel. As a result of that experience I was transformed from being someone who believed 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, believing in working together.
So, I began to look for the good in all the residents. I understood that was 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 is good for the whole population, including the Arab citizens. In addition, it became clear to me that question of peace was important to everyone. The word “peace” has become a word everyone seems to run away from – which, by the way, in this election I feel has become a dirty word. I fear that after this election the word “democracy” will become a dirty word as well. I understood that we are here together, so we need to find the best way to live together and find what is best for all the 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. In this case, using the word “people” or nation (in Hebrew “Ha-Am”) was not a nationalist call. To me the phrase meant that the people below, demand justice from the institutions of government from above. “The people”, means all the people – Arabs and Jews. All the people demand social justice.
My ideological transformation was part of my political maturation; choosing to become part of the greater whole. This does not mean that I now 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 just 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. This attitude takes our party out of the corner that some people try to paint us into, and places us on the main playing field.
Some have tried to banish us from the political landscape, by raising the number of seats required to be in the Knesset. The context for that action goes back to the 1990s, when we (the Arab parties) served as the blocking force in the coalition negotiations, that allowed Yitzhak Rabin to become Prime Minister and sign the Oslo accords. Afterwards, there was an outcry questioning how it was possible that Arab parties could force vital decisions made for a Jewish State. Then, attempts to delegitimize the Arab parties began, ultimately leading to the raising of the electoral threshold. That being said, we will not be removed from the game. We united and we will remain on the field. We scored goals at Bloomfield and we will score goals at Teddy (i.e. two of the largest soccer stadiums in Israel). We will play on every field in the country, on all the issues. We are citizens. Everything is important to us and we must remain involved.
Question: Do you think the four parties you represent that came together for this election will be able to work together (at least) for the medium-term, not to mention for the long-term?
AYMAN ODEH: When we began to work together, we discovered that our positions are very close to each other. Today there is discussion between our parties, instead of fights. 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 all people in the State of Israel. As to our short-term achievable goals, I am developing a plan, which the other groups support. I received my inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King.
Why do I attribute my inspiration to Martin Luther King? I have a ten-year plan to close the socio-economic 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 have to fight over – for example, equal civil rights; employment in general; employment of woman; elimination of violence; recognition of the recognized Bedouin villages in the South; and bus service to the under-served 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. An Arab who works and pays taxes is good for the country. An Arab who does not work receives social welfare payments from the country’s pocket. My plan will strengthen the country socially, democratically and of course, economically. For now, I want to put aside all of the idealogical fights, though we will not run away from these fights. We will continue to argue over them in a democratic way, in a non-violent way; a way of peace.
For the moment, let’s not focus on the theoretical, and let’s also set aside our ideological issues for the time being and concentrate on implementing these practical plans. What specific inspiration do I take from Martin Luther King? Next year, we will march, in a similar style peaceful march – from Nazareth to Jerusalem. To my great sorrow, we do not have an Abraham Lincoln. Yitzhak Rabin began the job, but was not able to finish. We have no Lincoln, so we cannot stand next to a statute of someone like Lincoln, but we will get into the Knesset.
This march will not be a march of Arabs alone, but of Jews and Arabs together. On the way, we will not only sleep in Um-el-Fahem, but we will also sleep in Shefayim. This march will be to call for the elimination of the civil gaps between Arabs and Jews in the State. We will also lead a petition signing campaign, which half a million to a million citizens will support and sign – both Jews and Arabs. This is important because I want the politicians to know that the people are with us. When they see that one million citizens support the programs, then they will say: “Let’s look at it. We will certainlt not lose votes if we do.” This is the direction I believe in. This is where I am headed.
That being said, because of the deep lack of trust in this country, I need to use all the tools in my tool kit to accomplish my goals. We cannot go one step at a time, in some sort of “Salami method” (cutting things into small pieces). Ultimately, we must talk about everything. I will not permanently put anything on the side. I think the whole attitude toward Arab rights in this country is incredibly psychological. Suppose the Arabic language was not an official language in the country, and I suddenly came and asked that it become an official language. And I, with my Israeli chutzpah, ask that the signs in Arabic be placed not only in Kfar Manda or in Nazareth, but in Tel Aviv as well. I am sure that everyone would jump and say – “but this is a Jewish State. This can not be done”. Someone would tell me: “The Arabs have 22 States, and we have just one”. However, right where we are sitting, we have a street sign that says: Mathas HaPalmach (Palmach Museum), and before that, Jamiat Tel Aviv (University of Tel Aviv). Who does that hurt? Who is bothered by those additional names on the city signage?
It is all so psychological. If I request other rights – for example, that in our schools we learn about our national cultures. I want students to learn not only about Bialik, and not just about the poetess Rachel. I love the poem “Tzachki, Tzachki” by Tchernichovsky. I know it by heart and I love it. But I also want students to learn about my culture – and they do not allow me that.
In this day and age, the age of globalization and localization, in the age of satellites, Facebook and You Tube, is it possible to stop people from learning about their culture? Instead of us getting our culture through a side window, we could get it through the front door. We should learn about our culture through the education system. 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 to 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.
Question: There was a recent Ha’aretz Newspaper poll showing that 70% of the Arab population in the country was more interested in matters of economics and daily life than questions regarding the Palestinian issue. How do you respond to those survey results?
AYMAN ODEH: 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 has a right, just like all people in the world, to have their own state.
Question: 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”?
AYMAN 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 there, as well as defense arrangements. 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.
So now let’s talk about Israel. I do not want to compare. I want to make it clear that I am not comparing. Before the founding of the State, Israel had the Haganah, the Irgun and the Etzel. The Irgun and Etzel were opposed to the partition of the land, while the Haganah favored it. During the ceasefire, the Irgun tried to bring the Altalena and they were stopped. Where there is law, and where there is government, there is security. Therefore, it is better for there to be clear borders and independence.
I sat with the Head of the Palestinian Authority (Abu Mazen). He says: in every place he does not look for weapons, he looks for a moment when his people will be looked at with respect. There will be an agreement. I believe that true security will come from withdrawing from Palestinian territory and creating a State next to the State of Israel. Arabs of Palestine, like Arabs throughout the Arab world dreamed of ending British or the French domination. However, then, a new player arrived on the scene – the Zionist movement – and what happened, happened.
The Palestinian Arabs accept the framework that they will get a State on 22% of the land that he dreamed of. I believe that you cannot push them any further to the wall. There is an historic opportunity. Abu Mazen is a pragmatic person; a peace loving person, in everyone’s opinion – other than the opinion of the Israeli government.
Question: While Abu Mazen might have the image of someone who wants peace, and he doesn’t have the image of being a weak leader.?
AYMAN 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 strengthen. He is weak because he does not succeed. It is the Israeli government who prefer him weak.
Question: Why do you think during the last few years there has been such a rise in racist actions against Arabs in Israel?
AYMAN 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 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. I believe this slogan explains a great deal of what I think. The real source of much of our problems is Benjamin Netanyahu.
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% of the Israeli population is convinced about some of our views. We can be satisfied if we are able to convince 30% of the Jewish population – then together with our 20%, we can be at least 50% This is the reason why the right-wing attacks us. They know that if we decide to truly be fully engaged in the political process that the right will be in serious trouble. We are such a strong political power. We make up 20% of the population and have strong beliefs. All we have to do is become determined to get involved in the political game, and the right-wing will really be in big trouble.
Question: I have to ask the question that everyone asks – If you are asked by Yitzhak Herzog to join the government by will you?
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.
One final question: Assuming you have approximately 15 mandates – which is (more or less) the number people expect you to have, what do you think you can accomplish?
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 all those who visit. The head of the opposition speaks after the Prime Minister in the Knesset and receives government briefings. I believe we will need to take all sorts of actions, like the march I mentioned earlier to bring about equality to our population. All of this will happen for the first time in history – That will be a good position for us to be in.