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I'm an Arab and I have a name

For years, Israel’s Palestinian minority has been outside the political game. The Joint List is poised to change the rules.

There were many hot moments in the televised debate held last Thursday between eight of Israel's party leaders running for the coming election. Yet maybe the most remarkable one was when Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the right-wing head of Israel's Our Home (Israel Beitenu) party approached the head of the Joint List without calling him by name. "I'm an Arab and I have a name. It's Ayman Odeh," Odeh told Lieberman. At the end of the debate, Odeh was declared one of the night’s biggest winners.

Almost anonymous to the Israeli Jewish public until a few weeks ago, Odeh’s performance at the debates was a great personal achievement. But its significance goes beyond Odeh's merits. Maybe for the first time in Israeli political history, a Palestinian politician has risen to the national level – and not as an object of fear and hate, as was the case with Haneen Zoabi and many others, but as a bearer of a legitimate political message.

Odeh is a true newcomer on the Israeli political scene. At 40, he is the youngest among all party leaders and the only one who has never served in the Knesset. But he is not new to politics. In recent years, he served as the general secretary of the Democratic Front for Equality (Hadash), in which the Israeli Communist Party plays a major part. In an internal Hadash election held a month ago, Odeh managed to defeat its longtime leader Mohammed Barake.

From enemies to allies

As with many in the Communist Party, Odeh was hesitant towards forming a joint list with the religious elements represented in the Islamic Movement and the Arab nationalists active in the National Democratic Alliance (Balad), long-time bitter foes of the communists in local Palestinian politics.

But after being elected as head of Hadash, Odeh changed his mind and finalised the historic agreement on the formation of a list uniting all parties representing the Palestinian minority for the first time in Israel's history. As the biggest single party, Hadash was given the first post in the list, and thus Odeh “skipped” over much more experienced and well-known politicians like Jamal Zahalke, the head of Balad, or Ahmed Tibi from the Arab Movement for Renewal.

The most pressing reason for the formation of this historic union was the new election law put in place in March 2014, which set the threshold to enter parliament at four seats and would wipe out all individual Palestinian parties as they barely crossed this mark in the last elections or fell far behind it. That was probably the very intention of this law, initiated by the same Lieberman.

Yet even if this Joint List was supposedly formed as a technical bloc in order to pass this barrier, from day one, it has acquired a much wider meaning. It was evident in the opening event of the campaign, held in Nazareth two weeks ago in front of a packed and excited crowd of more than 2,000 people.

Declaration of independence

More than an electoral rally, the event looked like a declaration of independence of the 1.7 million Palestinians living in Israel. Living under military rule in the first 20 years after the 1948 war, most Palestinians who remained under Israeli control voted for Zionist-controlled parties. Only in the 1970s did non-Zionist parties attain a majority among Palestinian voters, but they remained separated and, often times, at war with each.

The new-found unity, so it seems, is giving Palestinian citizens of Israel a sense of empowerment almost unknown to them before. Mas'ood Ghanaim, the head of the Islamic Movement, said that by participating in the formation of the Joint List, he is paying tribute to the suffering of his father and grandfather in the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe) in 1948. Jamal Zahalka claimed that they are not just a party, they are “the representatives of a people”.

Despite their considerable size – 20 percent of the total population – the voice of Israeli Palestinians is almost not heard at the national political level. Apart from a short interval during Yitzhak Rabin's government in 1992, they have never been a part of the ruling coalition.

Feeling of estrangement 

With recent legislation directed against the Palestinian population – like the law forbidding the commemoration of the Nakba in public institutions or the Jewish State law passed by the government just before the election – this feeling of estrangement between the rulers and the ruled has deepened.

Lieberman's election propaganda calling for “population swaps” between Israel and the future Palestinian state was conceived as a direct threat against Palestinian citizens of Isreal. Therefore, it easy to understand why the prospect of the Joint List getting 13 or even 15 seats in the next parliament, and thus becoming maybe the third largest party, is met with such enthusiasm.

But Odeh takes this feeling of Palestinian national pride a step forward. The Communist Party to which he belongs has always regarded itself as a shared Jewish-Palestinian party and fiercely opposed ideas of Palestinian separatism inside Israel. Although not more than 10 percent of its voters are Jewish, one of its four parliament members is “reserved” to a Jewish member.

Based on this bi-national heritage, Odeh is trying to turn the Joint List into a player in the Israeli political scene. His appearance in the debate last Thursday was certainly helpful in this sense. Instead of getting into dog-fights with Lieberman and the likes, he stressed his will – and the will of the Arab minority in general – to be regarded as citizens with full equal rights. To a great extent, Odeh was the voice of democracy in this debate.

A revelation for Israeli Jews

For many Jews in Israel, this is a true revelation. They are used to hearing Palestinian politicians speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and therefore it is easy for them to label them as pro-Palestinians and, as a consequence, as enemies of Israel. Odeh does speak about the necessity to end the occupation and even about the right of return for Palestinians refugees, but when values of democracy and equality come first, it is easier for the Jewish public to swallow it.

Odeh does not hide his intention to turn the Joint List into a democratic camp which will comprise, in the future, Jewish leftist parties like Meretz. He even stretched his hand to the biggest party of the Mizrahi Jews, Shas, and urged its leader Arie Der'i to join in an “alliance of the oppressed”.

Not everyone within the joint List are happy with the direction taken by Odeh. They would prefer this party, if it succeeds in the election, to use its power to pave the wave for a kind of national autonomy for Arabs inside Israel: independent school system, Arab university and so forth. But right now they go with Odeh.

It is too early to say what effect will Odeh's campaign have on Israeli politics. It depends, of course, on the results his list will get in the election on 17 March, as well as on his ability to keep the conflicting parts of his list united. Yet one thing is certain: Odeh became the first Israeli Palestinian politician to be regarded as a “legitimate” leader outside the Palestinian minority.

Judy Shalom-Mozes, a right-wing commentator and the wife of one Likud's leaders, Silvan Shalom, was quick to detect this danger. “Odeh is a very dangerous man”, she said on Channel 10 a day after the debate, “because he transmits something that you can associate with as an Israeli.” This is exactly the point. Israeli politics has grown used to see Palestinians as not being part of the game, something Odeh threatens to change.

- Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for a inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the News Department in Haaertz, and now an independent journalist.

​The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: Israeli Arab political leaders (from L to R) Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Masud Ghanayem show their five fingers to symbolize the 15 seats they want to win in the next Israeli Knesset parliamentary elections as members of a joint list of Arab parties in Nazareth on February 24, 2015. (AFP)