Interview

‘The Government Should Fall’

The leader of Israel’s Joint Arab List sits down with Foreign Policy to talk about Netanyahu’s lies, why Arab women need to work, and why Abu Mazen is afraid of going to war.

Israeli Arab political leader Ayman Odeh gestures during a press conference in Jerusalem on March 9, 2015 as part of his election campaign ahead of the March 17 general elections. The Arab list, which polls show could win 12 seats in the election, one more than their combined total now, includes Muslim, Christian, Druze and even Jewish Communist candidates. It comprises the Balad party, the Islamic Movement, the Arab Movement for Change, and Hadash, an Arab-Jewish socialist party. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD GHARABLI        (Photo credit should read AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Arab political leader Ayman Odeh gestures during a press conference in Jerusalem on March 9, 2015 as part of his election campaign ahead of the March 17 general elections. The Arab list, which polls show could win 12 seats in the election, one more than their combined total now, includes Muslim, Christian, Druze and even Jewish Communist candidates. It comprises the Balad party, the Islamic Movement, the Arab Movement for Change, and Hadash, an Arab-Jewish socialist party. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD GHARABLI (Photo credit should read AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)

Ayman Odeh is an Israeli-Arab member of the Knesset who headed up the Joint Arab List, an alliance of four Arab-majority political parties, in the last election. He spelled out his agenda and the challenges ahead of him to Foreign Policy in a recent interview. Excerpts follow below:

Foreign Policy: You had a pretty big victory in the last election?

Ayman Odeh: In the last elections, we had lots of achievements that we haven’t had since the country was established. [We won] 13 seats in the Knesset [and became] the third-largest party in the Knesset. [Previously] the voting percent of Arabs inside Israel was decreasing. This the first time that it increased drastically.

FP: And to what do you attribute that?

AO: We created hope for the people. We talked about the struggle — like the struggle of Martin Luther King. Here are two examples: We have only one electricity company inside Israel [but] only 2 percent of the workers there are Arabs. So we said if there is only one company, in the next month, we [should] shut off the electricity for one hour. A month later, two hours. We will make them lose millions if they will not have new Arab workers in the company.

We talked about a march from Nazareth city in the Galilee to Jerusalem.

The main goal is a ten-year plan to decrease the gap between Arab and Jewish people — social and economic.

FP: And how big is that gap right now?

AO: Since the [founding] of Israel, 700 new towns have been established. All of these towns are for Jews, not for Arabs. Zero Arab towns were established.

In the Arab towns, the master plans have not been updated for 20 or 30 years. People can’t build new houses.

If someone will build on this land, it will be an illegal house. There are 50,000 Arab houses that have been demolished. So, Arab towns need some extra lands and new, updated master plans. I want to give you another example about discrimination.

Only 24 percent of Arab women are working [while] 63 percent of Jewish women are working. We want a job also for these women. A working Arab woman will pay taxes, and the taxes will go to the Arab and Jewish people. If she’s not working, she will take welfare from the budget of Arabs and Jews. It’s not good.

The recognition of the State of Israel of the discrimination against the Arab citizens inside the country will make the Arab citizens feel that they belong. Now, they feel that they don’t belong.

I will give an example. When the state will recognize the Nakba (the Palestinian name for the 1948 war), this will build a feeling that this is my state. When the state recognizes the history of mistakes that it committed.

FP: Aren’t there some Israelis who are sympathetic to the situation of the Israeli Arabs?

AO: Of course. There are a lot of people that feel solidarity with us and are struggling with us for the recognition of what happened and for fixing the situation. My job is to find acts that will benefit all people. We Arabs and Jews will remain here and are going to live here. We have only one way to live together — democracy and equality for all citizens.

FP: What do you think of the newly-formed government led by Prime Minister Netanyahu?

AO: He is living in the past, and we want the future. In each issue, he wants to manage the conflict and not to have a solution for the conflict.

FP: What did you think of his saying to Israelis on election day, “the Arabs are going to the polls”?

AO: The right wing tried to have us [kicked] out from the parliament — they increased the threshold to 3.25 percent because all of the Arab parties were below that. We decided to be part of the Israeli policymaking. And we choose the most simple and logical way: to go and vote and not to throw rocks.

[Netanyahu] lied to the people. The percentage of Jewish voters was higher than the percentage of Arab voters.

FP: You mean he lied when he said the Arabs were running to the polls?

AO: Because the percent [of Arabs] was much lower than the Jewish voters.

FP: What do you think of the latest plan to discriminate between Palestinians and settlers on buses in the West Bank?

AO: In the U.S., the nation is sensitive to the story of buses and voting — like Rosa Parks and the black vote. Because of that, it caught your eyes, interested you. But there is discrimination [here] in all levels. But we are not crying. We want to change [things]. And we are struggling in civil and democratic ways.

FP: How do you feel about the way the Palestinians are treated? And do Israeli Arabs have affiliations with the Palestinians?

AO: I have a lot of warm feelings towards the Palestinian people. All of us should agree to establish the state of Palestine beside the state of Israel in the 1967 borders.

FP: What would be the relationship of the Israeli Arabs to the Palestinian state?

AO: We are citizens of Israel and will remain citizens of Israel. But there is a conflict — we are citizens of Israel and [yet] we are a part of the Palestinian people. We are the people that most want and will most benefit from ending this conflict.

FP: Do you see any hope to end the conflict?

AO: There is no other solution than ending this conflict.

FP: But do you believe Netanyahu is interested in ending it?

AO: The government should fall.

FP: It could happen, right?

AO: Yes, it’s cracking.

FP: How long do you think it will last?

AO: I met Netanyahu some days ago — just myself and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

FP: And how did that go?

AO: The prime minister told me that Abu Mazen refuses peace.

FP: And what did you say?

AO: Did you agree to give him an independent state, to stop the occupation, and with East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state? Of course he answered ‘no.’

I talked about the rights of Arab people, citizens, inside Israel.

FP: And did he say anything that you liked?

AO: A lot of times Netanyahu is saying lots of positive things, but he’s not doing.

Netanyahu can promise a lot of things, but you go out from the meeting unsure what he is going to do. I am saying it with a lot of bad feeling.

FP: Would you have worked with [leader of the opposition Isaac] Herzog if he had been elected prime minister?

AO: There is a common agreement among the Arab citizens of Israel that the best parliament was when [Yitzhak] Rabin was the prime minister and we helped him and his government go for peace and equality and democracy. The Arab parties in that time acted as a security back channel in 1992 and 1996.

Herzog should decide if he wants peace or not.

FP: During the campaign, you spoke of building bridges with Israeli Jews?

AO: I come from a place of loving people — all human people. And I would love to live in a place that has more than one nation. But for that we need democracy and equality.

FP: What do you think about Abu Mazen? Reportedly, he’s not going to go ahead anymore with talks and will press his case at the U.N. for an independent Palestinian state. What do you think of that?

AO: Abu Mazen has no more hope for Netanyahu’s approach. He’s searching for a way to establish the Palestinian state. He doesn’t want a militarized struggle with Israel.

FP: Wait, you said that Abu Mazen is afraid of an armed struggle with Israel?

AO: Yes. And for that he sees no option but going to the U.N. and to the world.

He wants a popular and non-violent struggle for the Palestinian people, but he’s afraid of an armed and militarized struggle. President Mahmoud Abbas has a historical chance to make peace. A pragmatic leader.

FP: Do you think he wants to make peace?

AO: In each bone of his body, he wants peace.

FP: What do you think of President Obama?

AO: I have a lot of respect for President Obama’s last declarations about the Arab citizens inside Israel. But I also believe that the U.S. is not doing a lot to push Israel towards peace.

FP: A lot of people think it’s doing too much.

AO: I believe that the U.S. is the strongest country in the whole world and the country that supports Israel the most. I believe that it has the strength to push Israel towards peace.

FP: I think President Obama has tried.

AO: America is more powerful than this. The U.S., in the United Nations, until now, supports Israel. Sometimes it’s the only country that supports Israel in the United Nations and it supplies Israel with military and economical help.

FP: Where do you Israel Arabs feel most unequal?

AO: Lands. We are 18 percent [of the population], but we have 2.5 percent of the lands.

FP: Do you have any allies in the Knesset?

AO: Yes, the Joint List and Meretz and parts of the Labor party.

Photo credit: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

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