|Image by © ALAA BADARNEH/epa/Corbis|
14 December '15..
The standing ovation given to Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint Arab List party in Israel, at the Haaretz conference yesterday is a clear demonstration of how he is seen by Western elites. The hundreds of journalist and intellectuals who packed the hall in New York see him as a leader who promotes peace and equality, the embodiment of the progressive dream for the small Jewish-Arab state. His critique of the “establishment that occupies two nations” excited the crowd, and his vision of social justice no doubt touched the hearts of the wealthy Jewish liberals in the audience. The standing ovation for Odeh was a standing ovation for a shared goal: coexistence and equality in a multi-national welfare state.
Foreign Policy has chosen Odeh, an Israeli Arab Member of the Knesset, for its list of 100 leading global thinkers for 2015. In explaining their choice, the editors note that “Middle East peace talks may be all but dead, but Ayman Odeh still dreams of resolving the world’s most intractable conflict,” adding that he “heads the Joint List, a coalition of Arab political parties that united for the first time ever to run in Israel’s March elections.” According to Foreign Policy, Odeh has “yoked diverse leaders — Islamists, secular feminists, socialists,” and his party “is now the Knesset’s third largest and the biggest Arab legislative faction in Israeli history.”
It is difficult to argue with success, but nearly every one of these sentences misrepresents the facts.
MK Odeh has not “united” the Arab parties or “yoked” Arab leaders. In order to understand this, we need a bit of background. In the Israeli political system, many parties run in Knesset elections. In the last elections, no fewer than 25 parties ran, only ten of which won seats. A party must receive a certain minimal percentage of the vote to enter the Knesset. Any party receiving less than this percentage — the “electoral threshold” — will remain outside, even if has received tens of thousands of votes.
The electoral threshold is occasionally changed through legislation, with the aim usually being to neutralize small parties in order to stabilize the political system around medium-size and large parties. In the previous Knesset, right-wing MKs, led by Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beitenu, initiated a relatively dramatic increase in the electoral threshold, from 2 to 3.25 percent. This provided an immediate incentive for small parties with three to four MKs to join together.
The Arab parties, which have a rich record of rivalries and internal conflicts, have received 2 to 4 percent in recent years, placing them on the border of the electoral threshold. A higher threshold endangered their existence, and the decision to undertake a “historic union” was meant to enable them to survive. It was not Odeh who united the Arab parties, but Avigdor Lieberman.
That’s if there was any union at all. The parties that make up the Joint List preserved their organizational and ideological independence, and aside from the fact that all are in the opposition (which is nothing new), they do not operate as one list. The “Joint List” is daily riven by disputes over how to approach the Arab League, cooperation with the Zionist parties, and various draft bills. Even the name of the list shows this: it is only “joint” and not “united.” In Hebrew, this difference indicates technical but not substantive cooperation.
What about Odeh’s goals and policies? Is he a man of peace and conflict resolution? Not if one looks at the evidence. Odeh habitually attacks Israel in a way that leaves no hope for either negotiations or a settlement that includes compromises by both sides; he also consistently walks a fine line between the legitimate and the illegitimate in his support for terrorism.
Here, for example, is how Odeh presented his movement’s aim in Kul al-Arab, an Israeli Arab newspaper, in January 2008: “There is no choice … but to define the common primary enemy, which is the Israeli occupation, in the battle to establish a Palestinian state with full sovereignty and to realize the rights of the refugees and implement international resolutions, mainly Resolution 194.” The focus on refugees, as anyone familiar with the intricacies of the conflict knows, is code for Arab non-recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
On another occasion, when Odeh was already a member of the Knesset, he made it clear that he supports incitement against Israel, stating that “the root of the problem is the occupation, and incitement against the occupation is a national duty.” Furthermore, at the end of meetings he held with imprisoned Palestinian terrorists Marwan Barghouti, Karim Younis, and Walid Daka, who were convicted of murdering innocent Israeli civilians, Odeh stated that the terror activists’ “morale is good, their belief in the Palestinian people’s victory over the occupation firm,” and that they are “hopeful that the occupation will end, and racism in Israel will be defeated.” Is it conceivable that a member of Parliament from any Western country would meet with terrorists convicted of murdering the MP’s fellow citizens and make statements such as those? And would he then be hailed as a man of peace?
In an interview with Israel Army Radio, Odeh explained that he “supports the just struggle of the Palestinian people.” When asked to name his “red lines” in this struggle, he replied, “I don’t have red lines for the Palestinian people. I won’t tell them where to throw stones from.”
Israel is making great efforts to integrate its Arab citizens into the larger society and to provide them with useful knowledge and skills that will help open up employment and study opportunities. One of the important ways of doing this is civilian national service for Arabs in place of military service, which is not compulsory for Arabs because it might lead to dilemmas of conscience or politics. Yet Odeh is one of the most prominent opponents of these efforts, describing national service as capitulation to the temporary Israeli colonial rule: “Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] the hypocrite-heart will not succeed in doing today what Richard the Lionheart failed to do during the Crusades.”
While relations between the Arab minority and the larger society are sensitive and charged, the Arabs’ historic hostility to the establishment of the Jewish state, together with inherent cultural and religious differences, have made integrating them into Israeli society an enormous challenge.
As Foreign Policy notes, Arab society is not monolithic: among the roughly 1.4 million Arab citizens of Israel there are Muslims, Bedouins, Christians, and others, with different ways of life. Some are more religious and some less, some live in villages and some in cities, some are modern, and some are traditional. Yet despite all their differences, the vast majority have one thing in common: they would rather be citizens of Israel than emigrate to a sovereign Palestinian state.
Many Israeli Arabs would certainly feel some solidarity with Palestinian national aspirations. But as countless polls have made clear, most are interested in approaching the challenges faced by Arabs in Israel — such as social problems, tensions between modernity and tradition, and a constant effort to improve their standard of living — as citizens of Israel.
This approach, which accepts the existence of the State of Israel, has proven itself worthy. In recent years, the situation for Israel’s Arab citizens has improved significantly. For example, between 2005 and 2010, the percentage of workforce participation by Arab women aged 30-39 increased from 24 to 34 percent, and it has continued to rise since then. In the past few years, a hi-tech center has developed in Nazareth that now has more than 300 Arab employees, up from 30 in 2008. In addition, the Technion, known as “Israel’s MIT,” has seen a reduction in the dropout rate for Arab students, from 28 percent to 12. This trend can also be seen in economic terms: between 2005 and 2011, after adjusting for inflation, the net earnings of Arab families rose by 7.4 percent.
Israeli Arabs are well aware of this. The percentage of Israeli Arabs who were “very satisfied” with their economic situation rose from 40 percent in 2004-2005 to 60 percent in 2010-2011. It is not surprising that the results of a poll by Haifa University sociologist Sammy Smooha show a dramatic increase in the percentage of Arabs in Israel who identify as “Israeli Arabs” and not Palestinians, from 33 to 43 percent.
Many Arabs are caught between a basic identification with the Palestinian national struggle and a desire to live in a peaceful and secure Israel that they recognize as the nation-state of the Jewish people. They are interested in the good things Israeli democracy has to offer and are determined to take advantage of the opportunities Israel provides its citizens. This is why increasing numbers of Muslims and Christians are serving in the IDF, why voluntary civilian service has been opened to Israeli Arabs, why there are new business and entrepreneurial opportunities, and of course, why the integration of minorities into academia and government offices continues.
In this debate, Odeh and his comrades are on the wrong side. The first people to understand this have been prominent Israeli Arab leaders, more and more of whom are speaking out against the formal Israeli Arab leadership, vocally protesting attempts to create a rift between the larger society and Arab citizens of Israel. Here are several examples.
Nael Zoabi, principal of the Tamra Ha’emek elementary school, who works to integrate his students into society, told Mida that “in the name of the flag of the Palestinian problem, the needs of Israeli Arabs are completely ignored.” Zoabi believes that Arab MKs are “becoming part of the problem and not part of the solution and are dragging the entire Arab community down with them.
Father Gabriel Nadaf, the victim of a campaign of slander and violent incitement by Odeh’s comrades, explains that since Christians are being slaughtered in the Middle East, the future and safety of the community means full cooperation with Israel: “In this chaos, there is only one island of sanity where Christians are not persecuted, where they are protected and enjoy freedom of religion and worship, freedom of expression, where they live in peace and are not a target for genocide. That island is Israel, the country where I was born and where I and my fellow Christians live in total freedom.” Nadaf has called for Arab Christians to serve in the IDF and to cooperate with the state in order to improve relations between Jews and other groups in Israel.
One of Odeh’s most embarrassing moments since the elections came during an interview in Nazareth in October while some Israeli Arabs were taking part in violent demonstrations. Nazareth Mayor Ali Salam, who overheard the interview, excoriated Odeh for harming the residents of Nazareth and destroying the local economy by keeping Jewish visitors away.
Ayman Odeh is not a man of peace. He is far from accomplishing the mission described in Foreign Policy. To Odeh, Israel is a temporary colonial entity. He does not condemn terrorism against Israel and even legitimizes it, and in the internal Israeli-Arab debate, he represents the side that prefers to leave the Arabs alienated from and hostile to the Jewish state. Odeh is a nationalist politician who exploits the openness of Israeli democracy in order to divide, cause friction, and incite. Peace will not come as long as people like Odeh are viewed as moderates deserving of honor and respect.
Updates throughout the day at http://calevbenyefuneh.
blogspot.com. If you enjoy "Love of the Land", please be a subscriber. Just put your email address in the "Subscribe" box on the upper right-hand corner of the page.Twitter updates at LoveoftheLand as well as our Love of the Land page at Facebook which has additional pieces of interest besides that which is posted on the blog. Also check-out This Ongoing War by Frimet and Arnold Roth. An excellent blog, very important work as well as a big vote to follow our good friend Kay Wilson on Twitter.