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Ayman Odeh: Israel must stop racist incitement against Arab citizens

Palestinian-Israeli politician, who heads the Joint List bloc in the Knesset, tells MEE he is in the US seeking support to halt Israeli abuse
Ayman Odeh says the challenges facing his people are rarely heard on the international stage (AFP)

NEW YORK - In a rare visit by a Palestinian-Israeli politician to the United States, Ayman Odeh is in Washington this week to accuse Israel’s right-wing government of "racist incitement" against its own Arab citizens, he told Middle East Eye.

“America must do much more to stop the Netanyahu government’s racist incitement against Arabs, and the drastic anti-democratic steps it has taken recently,” said Odeh, who heads the Joint List of parties in Israel’s parliament.

"I am here to make it clear that Arab citizens of Israel have a unique perspective and an important role to play in the political landscape. Israel will not be able achieve democracy, equality, and peace without our voices and our substantive contributions."

In Washington, at the start of his two-week visit, Odeh met senior US State Department officials and politicians and spoke at the Palestine Centre and an event co-hosted by the Centre for American Progress and the Brookings Institution, two think-tanks.

His visit comes amid a wave of knife, gun and car attacks by Palestinians that have killed 19 Israelis in two months. More than 100 Palestinians have been killed, and activists blame some of these deaths on trigger-happy police and even summary executions.

"I came to the US to represent the unique challenges facing the Arab community in Israel, which is rarely heard on the international stage," said Odeh, a 40-year-old lawyer from Haifa.

"I’m bringing stories of structural discrimination, like the 100,000 Israeli citizens living without water and electricity in unrecognised Bedouin villages in the Negev, while the Israeli government spends hundreds of millions each year expanding settlements and deepening the occupation."

Odeh’s visit follows last month’s talks between the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and US President Barack Obama about a new 10-year US military aid package. The Israeli leader re-committed himself to allowing the creation of a Palestinian state after appearing to backtrack on that pledge during his recent election campaign.

'Structural discrimination'

"I came in order to make it clear to the international community that no half apology can make up for the fact that Netanyahu’s government rose to power on racist incitement against Arab citizens, and the chipping away of what is left of Israel’s democratic sphere," Odeh told MEE. 

In March elections, the Joint List – an alliance of Odeh’s Hadash group and three other Arab-dominated parties – made history by winning 13 seats in the fractured 120-member Knesset, making it the third-largest bloc.

The charismatic politician was elected on a platform of fighting racism and social inequality in Israel, where Arabs form about 20 per cent of the population of 8.2 million and have long complained about discrimination.

They are the descendants of Palestinians who stayed put during the 1948 war, when others fled or were expelled. They retain ties with Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem and identify with aspirations for a Palestinian state in those territories.

During his US visit, Odeh is due to meet UN ambassadors in New York, hold talks with civil rights leaders and speak at Martin Luther King Jr’s church in Atlanta, as well as meet a group of 100 reform Jewish rabbis.

"I am particularly inspired by Dr King, the black civil rights movement and their model of joint, just struggle," he said. "There are many differences between our movements, but I believe we have much to learn from the experiences of those who have successfully fought for their rights."

Odeh’s spokesperson, Reut Mor, said that US visits by Palestinian-Israeli politicians were rare.

“This, as far as we know, is the first time the elected leader of the Arab citizens of Israel has travelled to the US on this kind of trip, both to represent their voices in the halls of power and to form connections with the progressive and civil rights movements,” she told MEE.

Tom Caiazza, a spokesman for the Centre for American Progress, the left-leaning think tank that controversially gave Netanyahu a platform last month, said his colleagues decided to host Odeh after a request from his team.

Odeh grew up in a Muslim family but says he seeks to challenge ethnic and religious prejudices. He was a Muslim student in a mostly-Christian school, and said he got an "A" in New Testament studies in his high school final exams.

Aged 23, he was elected to the municipal council of Haifa. In 2006, he became secretary-general of Hadash, a veteran socialist party in Israel that emphasises Arab-Israeli co-operation.