Interview

The Men in the Middle

Two young, charismatic leaders in Israel and Turkey are taking on right-wing governments and trying to transform their countries' politics. Can they change the Middle East without firing a shot?

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The men with guns in the Middle East get all the attention. “If it bleeds, it leads” has been a self-evident truth for journalists for generations, at work today with coverage of the Islamic State’s latest brutality, the ongoing stabbing attacks in Jerusalem, and the Kurds’ effort to carve their nation out of the dissolving states of Syria and Iraq.

But two young civilian politicians, operating in very different countries in the Middle East, are trying to accomplish a subtler task — remaking the very nature of their countries’ political systems without firing a shot. They are both representatives of minority communities who have ambitions to become truly national leaders; both dyed-in-the-wool leftists facing off against clannish right-wing governments; and both facing the threat of being drowned out by more radical voices so effective at polarizing voters against them.

Ayman Odeh, the leader of an alliance of Arab-dominated parties that is the third-largest bloc in the Israeli Knesset, and Selahattin Demirtas, the co-chairman of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), have a lot in common. Odeh’s Arab-Israeli community and Demirtas’s Kurdish community both make up roughly 20 percent of their country’s population, even as both leaders have developed a message designed to appeal to a far broader swath of the electorate.

Odeh, 40, identifies a singular inspiration for his political message: Martin Luther King Jr. — the Israeli leader visited Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in early December, which was King’s home congregation and where he served as co-pastor. Like King, who marched alongside white Americans who supported racial equality, Odeh envisions a common front of Arabs and Jews to overturn the current right-wing political order.

“We say we want to be Arab and democratic Jews together against racism and discrimination,” he told Foreign Policy. “Our struggle is, at the end of the day, a struggle for all the citizens of Israel, because it’s a struggle for democracy.”

Odeh ticked off a list of other disenfranchised groups to which he wants to reach out, from Ethiopian Jews to Holocaust survivors to unemployed youth. His ambition is to capture 17 seats in the next Knesset election, up from his coalition’s current 13, and establish an alliance with the have-nots of society that fundamentally reorders Israeli politics. “Alone, we can’t take Israel in that direction,” he said. “But without us, it’s impossible.”

In his maiden Knesset speech, Odeh delivered his version of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, describing a vision of Israel’s future in 2025 if his vision was implemented. “Hundreds of thousands of Arab employees have been integrated into the private sector,” he imagined, reducing social tensions and helping the economy flourish, as formerly ignored segments of the population were lifted out of poverty.

Not all members of Odeh’s bloc have struck such an optimistic tone. Arab-Israeli Knesset member Hanin Zoabi caused a media firestorm by warning that Israel was heading toward a Kristallnacht — the 1938 pogrom against Jews in Nazi Germany that foreshadowed the Holocaust — against its Arab citizens. Citing the defacing of mosques and the burning of a Palestinian boy by Jewish settlers, she said that modern Israel was undergoing a “gradual moral descent that reminds us of Germany during the 1930s.”

In an interview in Washington, D.C., Odeh artfully rejected the idea that there was any tension between his sunny imagining of Israel’s future and Zoabi’s far grimmer version. “I think both speeches are important,” he said. “Israel will either go toward the direction of hope that I propose, or we will go toward the direction of racism that was in Europe before World War II, as Hanin warned about…. We are at the crossroads.”

Odeh is more worried about leaders whom he sees as extremists on the other end of the political spectrum. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explicitly drummed up fears of Arab-Israeli political influence on Election Day this year, ominously warning voters that Arabs were “coming out in droves” to the polls to support his left-wing rivals.

The recent wave of bloodshed in Jerusalem and the West Bank represents the most immediate challenge to Odeh’s message of inclusivity. Since mid-September, 20 Israelis and one American student have been killed by Palestinians in stabbing and car-ramming attacks. At least 120 Palestinians have also been killed by Israeli forces; 82 of those deaths, Israel says, were of people carrying out attacks on civilians.

Odeh blames what he terms changes to the status quo at the al-Aqsa Mosque, saying that the Netanyahu government is letting in “settlers who have very specific messianic ideologies,” and the widening economic and social gap between Arabs and Jews for the violence.

But he is also forthright in his condemnation of the stabbing attacks by Palestinians against Jewish civilians. “When you attack a Jew only for being a Jew, it harms the Palestinian cause not only morally, but also politically,” he said.

If Odeh ever despairs that such violence could polarize Israelis in a way that dooms his big-tent political coalition of Arabs and Jews, he doesn’t let on. He sticks to the hopeful, optimistic tone of Martin Luther King Jr. — focusing not on the injustices of the present day, but on the prospect of a better tomorrow. He wasn’t always that way: When first elected to office in 1998, he more closely identified with the message of Malcolm X, he told the Times of Israel earlier this year. “I loved the anger,” he said. In our conversation, he happily discussed how he read Malcolm X’s autobiography twice, underlining it both times, and laid roses on the assassinated activist’s grave during a previous trip to New York.

Odeh’s central goal lies in developing a political message that attempts to reconcile those two visions — the anger of Malcolm X and the optimism of King.

In his rhetoric today, however, there is no doubt that it’s King’s message that he attempts to emulate. “I want to tell you that the prisoner dreams of freedom, but the prison haunts the dreams of the prison guard,” he said, by way of describing why Israel must end its occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. “This is why we need to free both people from this horrendous occupation.”

* * *

Hundreds of miles north of Jerusalem, another political leader is not only trying to remake his nation but also determine what the boundaries of that nation actually are. Selahattin Demirtas, 42, is a trained lawyer and once unsuccessfully tried to join the Kurdish guerrillas fighting an insurgency against the Turkish state — now, he is the Kurds’ most powerful voice in the country’s Parliament and a leading voice in opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The bloodshed in Turkey’s majority Kurdish regions in worsening, and Demirtas has spent a depressing amount of time burying his comrades. On Nov. 28, Kurdish human rights lawyer Tahir Elci was gunned down in broad daylight in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. Demirtas did not hesitate in laying blame for his killing — he was “certain,” he said, that the bullet was fired from the gun of a policeman.

But the reasons for Elci’s murder, Demirtas said at the slain lawyer’s funeral, went deeper than out-of-control security forces. “What killed Tahir Elci was not the state, but statelessness,” Demirtas said.

It’s a statement that can be taken two ways: Did Demirtas mean that the breakdown of accountability in the Turkish state had led Elci’s murderers to act with impunity, or did he mean that the Kurds’ lack of a state of their own guaranteed such injustices?

“The Kurds are the biggest stateless nation; they don’t have any state,” Demirtas answered, when the question was posed to him in a Washington hotel in early December. “From the past up until now, many Kurdish leaders have been assassinated and killed, and none of their assassins have been found. It’s quite normal for those states to kill the Kurds and assassinate the Kurds. That’s why we feel deeply that there is no state protecting us — that’s what I said, and that’s what I meant, because I feel it deeply in my heart.

Demirtas walks this line expertly. The HDP, the party he co-chairs, stormed into Parliament this summer by championing “democratic autonomy” for the country’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, as well as an agenda of gay rights, environmentalism, and staunch opposition to Erdogan that attracted liberals and secular voters.

The escalating violence between the Turkish state and Kurdish militants — of which Elci is one of the most high-profile victims, but far from the only civilian casualty — has marked a setback for Demirtas’s political fortunes. While he called on both sides to “take their fingers off the trigger” and end the cycle of violence, the incipient chaos seemed to polarize the electorate against him.

The relationship between Demirtas’s party and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a banned guerrilla movement that has waged a decades-long insurgency against the state, lies at the center of the controversy. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Demirtas he should “look in the mirror” if he wants to see a murderer, while government prosecutors opened an investigation into him over the summer on charges of insulting the state and spreading terrorist propaganda. Demirtas denies that his party is linked to the PKK, instead describing the HDP as representing an antidote to the group’s violent approach.

The Kurdish rebels themselves, however, are keen to highlight their ties to the party: Senior PKK leader Cemil Bayik recently said, “Look, everybody knows, the world knows that the HDP was a project developed by [PKK leader Abdullah] Ocalan, by the PKK.”

These days, Demirtas is not only looking for allies at home — he’s also trying to bolster the international ties of the Syrian Kurds, where a PKK affiliate is the leading faction. The Syrian Kurdish forces, known as the People’s Protection Units, almost tripled their territory in the past year, and Demirtas has traveled to both Washington and Moscow to make the case that they deserve the support of both countries in their fight against the Islamic State.

The Kurds have a long history of being used and discarded by superpowers looking to fulfill their own agendas across the Middle East. So even as Demirtas cultivates international alliances, he sounds cynical about the machinations of each side that would claim to be the Kurds’ allies.

“Nobody is thinking about the Syrian people, because everyone wants to win this war,” he said. He is an equal-opportunity critic: Everyone from Turkey to Russia, from the United States to the Gulf monarchies, he says, has contributed to the escalation of violence and therefore spurred the creation of the Islamic State. “Daesh is the result of a common scene,” as he puts it, using an Arabic acronym for the militant group.

Demirtas is no fan of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who he says “committed crimes against his people,” but he sees the opposition’s demand for Assad to leave office as a needless distraction from the need for unity of purpose against the Islamic State.

“Assad is not such an important figure,” he said. “When you put Assad at the center of the discussion, you cannot find a solution.”

But like Odeh, Demirtas has precious few tools to accomplish his grand goals of reshaping the Middle East. Both men hope to win the international community and voters at home over to their cause — but both are civilian politicians whose success hinges on the decisions of well-armed men beyond their ability to control.

That is why, perhaps, Odeh and Demirtas share one more thing in common: They both led opposition parties that hoped to help dethrone right-wing governments in elections this year, and both suffered electoral defeats that further entrenched their antagonists in power. In March, Israeli voters returned Netanyahu to power, supported by the most right-wing government in Israeli history. And in November snap elections, Erdogan’s party regained a solid majority in Parliament, an improvement over a summer vote that saw its grip on power weaken.

Erdogan’s victory came after months of escalating violence between the Turkish state and Kurdish militants. Religiously conservative Kurds who had cast their ballots for Demirtas over the summer flocked back to the ruling party, attracted by its promise of a return to security and stability. Demirtas described the reaction of Turkish voters as akin to what happened in the United States after the 9/11 attacks — a rally-around-the-flag effect benefiting leaders who promised security. “I am in charge of administering one of the most difficult parties in the world,” he admitted at the time.

There’s no easy way out of this trap. Odeh and Demirtas may be charismatic, creative politicians, but they are always at risk of being undermined by forces that have no need to appeal to the ballot box. There’s a reason, after all, that the men with guns get so much attention.

Photo credit: JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images; AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

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