Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, an alliance of four small Arab-backed parties, reacts to exit poll figures at his party’s headquarters in the city of Nazareth on March 17, 2015. Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images
It is nearly 9 pm in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament; its cafeteria abuzz and Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List – the block of four Arab parties – is preparing to enjoy a much needed bowl of hot soup. He’s surrounded by a diverse cast of fellow parliamentarians including former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, Tzippi Livni, Ethiopian Avraham Neguise, and Tzachi Hanegbi.
His youthful looks are deceiving as he sits down with The Media Line to offer his take on the day’s dramatic events, including the suspension of three of his lawmakers for allegedly meeting to console the families of those killed while assaulting – and in some cases killing – Israeli citizens in random acts of street violence, many by stabbing. Odeh forcefully asserts that the trio went to aid in negotiations for the bodies of those killed as they carried out violent acts that at the time were being held by Israel.
Often described as “pragmatic,” Mr. Odeh, who prefers to be known as “a principled man”, is also known for what he calls his “vision” — that Arabs and Jews must work together. He’s widely quoted for his references to Jews from Arab and Islamic lands. He was interviewed for The Media Line at the Knesset by Felice Friedson.
TML: How do you respond to the Knesset Ethics Committee’s decision to suspend three Arab lawmakers who met with the families of the terrorists who perpetrated attacks against Israeli citizens? The Israelis charge they consoled the killers of Israelis while the Palestinians explain they were participating in efforts to have the bodies of those killed by Israeli security forces returned to their families?
Ayman Odeh: What they did in east Jerusalem is very natural to release the bodies. The Greek woman, Antigone, defied the orders of the king in order to bury her brother, because it is a human right from the first degree. The Israeli decision is part of a chain of decision to prosecute the Arabs. Netanyahu personally is leading the campaign against the Arabs.
TML: Three members of the Joint List called the attackers who killed Israelis “martyrs,” and on the Facebook page of MK Basel Ghattas, there is picture of the Palestinian flag. If these people were elected to represent Israel, how do you think Israel should respond?
Ayman Odeh: The murder of any citizen is wrong. Regarding the Palestinian flag, everyone needs to understand that out situation is complicated. On the one hand, nationally we belong to the Palestinian people. On the other hand, from a political stand point, we are citizens in Israel. We feel a sense of belonging to the Palestinian people, and its symbol, just like any other nation in the world that feels a sense of belonging to its nationality and symbols. This is not against the law.
TML: That doesn’t answer the question. No nation — like the United States, for example — is going to allow their own citizens to go out and to do things against their country. What should Israel do when it has people sitting in the Knesset calling those who assaulted and killed its citizens, “martyrs,” and representing the Palestinian state?
Ayman Odeh: The Knesset members — Jews and Arabs — don’t represent the state of Israel. The government is the one that represents the state of Israel officially. The members of Knesset have a transparent election process, and based on that are elected to the Knesset. Part of our agenda is to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state. We always said that nationally we belong to the Palestinian nation, but in the same time we are citizens of the state of Israel.
TML: That’s not the same thing as defending people who kill in cold blood.
Ayman Odeh: I am convinced that no one should defend the murder of any person in any way. We refuse to defend these actions. Hurting a Jew because he is a Jew is not acceptable, and it has a bad influence on the moral values of the Palestinian people, as well as their political ones. We support a just Palestinian struggle to end the occupation, but not with killing of civilians in any way or form.
TML: will you go out of the box and condemn fellow members for the way they are handling it?
Ayman Odeh: That the core of their action was to return the bodies is right. Israel is in the wrong here because it is still holding the bodies. The issue at hand here is not the members of Knesset trying to mediate the return the bodies to the families, but the racist incitement against the members of Knesset and their suspension, this is the main issue that needs to be condemned.
TML: Israelis want to know why your colleagues from the Arab parties won’t condemn violence against innocent civilians. First of all, is that true? Has there been any condemnation of the recent spate of killings?
Ayman Odeh: We have a strong, hard stance against harming innocent people. The struggle of the Palestinian people is one of the more just struggles all over the world. A just struggle has to have just means. The main part of the Palestinian struggle is a just struggle with just means. It occurs at the fringes that Palestinians harm innocent people. This is something we are completely against and we condemn it. We need to take all citizens — Palestinians and Israelis — out of the cycle of violence and harm. To be honest, more Palestinian civilians are harmed by the way the occupation uses institutional terror.
TML: Why is the Palestinian Authority and its leaders not condemning the attacks of these young people going out with knives?
Ayman Odeh: I don’t want to speak on the PA’s behalf.
TML: Would you advise them? Could you advise them?
Ayman Odeh: The occupation harmed Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] so greatly. Abu Mazen is a very responsible man. He is a very honest person. What he says behind closed doors is also said to the media. For about a decade now he is ruling and maintaining control over the West Bank even given the circumstances of occupation. People believed it would not be possible to rule in this manner. However, the Israeli government is so against peace and refuses to put their hands out to it, so in the meantime, the PA has its own calculations on the matter. I certainly support the PA leading a peaceful, non-violent struggle and to condemn attacks against civilians.
TML: You are saying that, but they haven’t done it.
Ayman Odeh: I already said that I will not go into speaking about their position on the matter.
TML: What are Jewish Israelis getting wrong about their Arab neighbors?
Ayman Odeh: I think there is a founding idea in the Jewish and Zionist consciousness from before the establishment of the state of Israel. They behave as part of Europe in the Orient rather than part of the Orient. There is a sense of superiority over the people of the Orient based on prejudices. “The wise island needs to know how to live with the sea.”
F: How do you differentiate between an Arab Israeli and a Palestinian?
Ayman Odeh: The Arab in Israel is also a Palestinian; the distinction from a Palestinian is having Israeli citizenship. We, the ones who support the two-state solution, want to hang on to our Arabic-Palestinian identity, and also struggle for equality in Israel.
F: Do Arabs in Israel view themselves as Israelis?
Ayman Odeh: The Arabs in Israel want two things: the Palestinian identity, and also full rights as citizens of Israel. The constant incitement of Israel against the Arab citizens creates a disruption in the issue of citizenship. The question is, “What is Israel? The occupation of the West Bank, or the constant incitement of Netanyahu against us?” Of course we won’t feel a sense of belonging. However, during the term of Rabin, when he worked towards peace and equality, it was very clear that the citizenship matter for the Arabs became very important.
TML: Beyond violence and security, is there a dual standard for Israeli Jews and Arabs?
Ayman Odeh: Israel was established for the Jews, not for all citizens. Until today, Israel has not managed yet to go past this initial idea.
TML: What needs to change?
Ayman Odeh: Israel must understand that there is a Jewish majority and an Arab minority. There needs to be respect for both the Jewish identity and the Arab identity. There has to be equality between all citizens and between the two nationalities. This matter is obvious in any democratic state. That’s the core of our struggle here in the parliament and also in the nation.