Arab-Israeli ‘pragmatist’ was a big hit. Elections loom as daunting Act II.

Debbie Hill/UPI/Newscom
Israeli Knesset member Ayman Odeh (L) joins Bedouin protesters outside the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem in January 2017 following the Israeli demolition of Bedouin homes in the Negev village of Umm Al-Hiran the previous week.
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In 2015 Ayman Odeh led a newly minted bloc of Arab-Israeli parties – a mash-up of communists, feminists, Islamists, and Palestinian nationalists – to the strongest Arab electoral showing in Israeli history. Their union was an act of political survival in the face of a right-wing attempt to limit Arab representation in Israel’s parliament. But it also met with the political values of Mr. Odeh, a secular Muslim who espouses the politics of cooperation, including between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. But the atmosphere in the halls of the Knesset in Jerusalem has often been hostile to Odeh’s Joint List coalition. And the controversial nation-state law, which Odeh denounced bitterly, is demoralizing his electoral base. Mohammed Dawarshe, at the Center for Shared Society in Israel, is concerned by the “tough environment” Odeh faces. “Either because he is young or because he is lacking national political experience, it’s hard for him to deal with the sharks.” But Odeh says he is not deterred. “We can despair and go away, or we can say ‘I want a binational identity for this country and say I will wave the flag for both nationalities together.’ ”

Why We Wrote This

‘Uniting in the face of adversity.’ ‘Reaching across divides.’ The value of these political goals seems almost self-evident. But in the rough and tumble of Israeli politics, the animosities and challenges are real.

In his trademark dark suit and no tie, Ayman Odeh enters a cafe here in his hometown, on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean.

A pair of young men rise instantly to shake the Arab parliamentarian’s hand and embrace him. Soon after, a father approaches, hands Mr. Odeh his infant daughter, and takes their picture.

When Odeh eventually gets up to leave the cafe, which serves both apple strudel and kanafeh, traditionally Jewish and Arab desserts, he is swarmed by smiling well-wishers, most of them Arab, but some Jewish.

Why We Wrote This

‘Uniting in the face of adversity.’ ‘Reaching across divides.’ The value of these political goals seems almost self-evident. But in the rough and tumble of Israeli politics, the animosities and challenges are real.

This is Haifa, where he seems most at ease. It’s not just his home turf, where he came of age politically, and was elected to the city council two decades ago when he was just 23. It’s also a city where Jews and Arabs live relatively integrated lives. It’s Haifa’s example that has shaped him and his brand of pragmatic politics.

A world away in Jerusalem, 100 miles to the south, the reception in the hallways of the Knesset has often felt decidedly less warm. There Odeh has spent the last four years heading the third-largest faction in Israel’s parliament.

The Joint List is a political alliance composed of the country’s four established Arab parties. They’re not an obvious ideological fit: a mash-up of communists, feminists, Islamists, and Palestinian nationalists. In 2015 Odeh led this newly minted bloc of “Arab” parties – so-called because their deputies and constituencies are mostly Palestinian citizens of Israel – to the strongest Arab electoral showing in Israeli history.

To be sure, the Joint List was borne of self-preservation. In a move apparently targeting Arab parties, a right-wing Jewish party had pushed through a measure raising the threshold for gaining a seat in the Knesset. Uniting was the parties’ way to survive.

Now, facing a challenge to his own political survival, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called snap elections for April. For Odeh, the vote will be his first real test of staying power.

Different kind of politician

When Odeh, a secular Muslim with a wide smile and accessible demeanor, emerged on the national stage ahead of the 2015 elections, he brought with him a new sensibility, one that espoused the politics of cooperation, of Jewish and Arab citizens of this country working together.

That image is a departure from the image among many Jewish Israelis of Arab lawmakers as confrontational advocates of the Palestinian agenda at best, and fifth columnists at worst.

“We have to fight to have a democratic atmosphere in Israel. There are Jews and Arabs here who are against the path of Benjamin Netanyahu,” Odeh, a critic of many of the prime minister’s policies, says in an interview. “The struggle has to be a shared Arab-Jewish struggle.”

Odeh, who lists both Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela as having inspired him, calls this common cause between Arabs and Jews an “alliance of the disadvantaged,” and says he wants to tap into the frustration over the vast and growing economic gaps in Israel.

For Jewish Israelis on the center and left, his appeal has also come from his vocal support for a two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Odeh emphasizes the rights of both peoples to self-determination. But he also warns that not making any moves toward a resolution has only one end: a single state where an Israeli minority rules over a Palestinian majority without voting rights.

In the Arab sector, where the effects of systemic discrimination run deep, Odeh campaigned on economic equality, promising to bring more women into the workforce, secure public transportation for Arab towns, and advocate for often impoverished Bedouin communities.

A major success: the almost $4 billion five-year plan to upgrade housing, public transportation, and education in Arab villages and towns.

Ron Gurlitz, co-director of Sikkuy, an organization that promotes equal rights for Arab citizens, says Odeh spent hours in negotiations that helped ensure the plan’s passage.

“Ayman sees the world as full of opportunities and acts accordingly,” Mr. Gurlitz says. “Many times he succeeds … through these meetings with senior Israeli bureaucrats and ministers. This is part of what makes him a leader.”

Yet Odeh has also had to do his share of arm-twisting – and compromising – to keep the Joint List together, and things are looking shaky for the upcoming election: four members of the list’s 13 have announced they will not run again.

“You have to be a magician to be head of a list that faces so many problems internally and externally,” says Eran Singer, Arab Affairs Editor for Israeli Public Broadcasting.

Feeling unwanted

“Many Arabs feel they don’t have the same rights as Jews, and this is part of the challenge Ayman Odeh faces,” Mr. Singer says. “He is the head of a list of mainly Arab members of Knesset who feel the Israeli establishment does not want them as part of the government or even part of the country.”

It has not been an easy ride, acknowledges Odeh. Hostility from some of their right-wing Jewish counterparts in the Knesset – catcalls of “traitors,” derision for speaking Arabic, and more – is familiar territory for Odeh and his fellow Arab lawmakers.

Israel’s Palestinian citizens, as many now prefer to define themselves, are made up of those Palestinians who stayed in Israel after the 1948 war that led to the Jewish state’s independence. The majority fled or were pushed out during the fighting. Today they make up 20 percent of Israel’s 8.2 million people.

In the hours before the polls closed for the 2015 elections, fearing that his voters were not coming to the polls to secure his victory over a Labor party alliance, Netanyahu made an on-camera get-out-the-vote plea, warning that “droves of Arabs” were casting ballots. While the 11th-hour election ploy has been roundly denounced by the left as racist, Netanyahu’s remarks still sting.

Odeh acknowledges that some Palestinian citizens, particularly the younger generation, have been turned off by politics under Netanyahu. They see an assault on their identity and culture both in political rhetoric and in the actual passage of nationalist bills aimed at diminishing their status. This has reinforced their sense that they are not wanted by their fellow citizens.

Odeh and his fellow Joint List members ripped up copies of the controversial nation-state law when it was still a bill on the Knesset floor while shouting the word “apartheid.” Odeh himself said in a statement at the time of its passage that Israel had just approved “a law of Jewish supremacy and told us that we will always be second-class citizens.”

Wavering support

Eid Jebele, a high school teacher in Haifa, political activist, and commentator in the Arab media, had been an ardent Odeh supporter in the last election. He likes him personally and says he has been a stellar speaker who articulates the needs of the community.

But he has been disappointed by what he describes as capitulations to the more Palestinian nationalist elements in the party, including a decision not to join forces with Meretz, a progressive party, as a voting bloc because they are a Zionist party. Another was Odeh’s decision not to attend the funeral of Shimon Peres, the former president and longtime Labor party leader. Decisions like these have hurt him with many in the community, he claims, as has infighting within his home communist party of Hadash.

“So the hopes people had in him have begun to vanish,” Mr. Jebele says. He says he won’t be voting for the Joint List in the next election, but instead will vote for Meretz.

Mohammed Dawarshe, director of Planning, Equality, and Shared Society at Givat Haviva, the Center for Shared Society in Israel, is concerned by the double challenges Odeh faces – both within the list and from the Knesset at large.

Mr. Dawarshe says he is grateful for Odeh’s championing of shared society, but speculates he could have been more effective in the Knesset.

“He is a good man with good intentions working in a very tough environment,” he says. “Either because he is young or because he is lacking national political experience, it’s hard for him to deal with the sharks.”

But despite the setbacks to his vision of binational Arab-Jewish cooperation, Odeh clings to this answer, saying, “We can despair and go away, or we can say ‘I want a binational identity for this country and say I will wave the flag for both nationalities together.’

“I am confident in my identity and I want to influence the state. It’s not going away and I’m okay with that. I don’t want to play on the Arab playing field alone,” he says. “I call on our public to join in, we are not a small minority. But I say alone we cannot succeed.”

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