Arab-Israeli Leader Takes Civil Rights Mission to U.S.

  • Soft-spoken Ayman Odeh casts self as new kind of Arab leader
  • Cites Martin Luther King But Won't Decry Palestinian Violence

Ayman Odeh, who has helped turn Israel’s marginalized Arab politicians into the third-biggest force in parliament, is preparing for his next campaign by visiting the U.S. this week and going to the church where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached.

With his native land suffering through a spasm of violence, Odeh has been seeking political support in Washington and New York, and spiritual nourishment in Atlanta. On Sunday, he attended services at Ebenezer Baptist Church where King and his father were pastors. He says he shares King’s goals: dialogue and civil rights.

“Even with all the difficulties, my dream is to strengthen the national conversation between citizens in the state of Israel -- Arabs and Jews together,” he said in an interview in Jerusalem.

Odeh presents himself as a new brand of Arab-Israeli politician, seeking to build equality rather than denigrate Israel. He speaks of fighting discrimination and building alliances, downplaying national security and foreign relations that accentuate the Arab-Jewish divide.

Solution From Within

Without prospects for a resumption in negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Odeh says the solution must come from within, from Israeli voters -- both Arabs and Jews. Since Arabs make up 20 percent of the population, he said, all he needs is another 30 percent to create change.

"There is no democracy with discrimination and those who want Israel to be a true democracy have to work for equality for the Arab minority in Israel," Odeh said in an interview in New York. "When we struggle for equality and rights, this is a struggle for democracy. This is a struggle for the common interest of all people."

Odeh said he is visiting the U.S., which he called "the most important place in the world," partly to appeal to U.S. Jews and their influence on Israeli public opinion as well as to explain the plight of Israeli Arabs.

"The Jewish American community has such a high moral standing," Odeh said. "They were the biggest supporters of the African-American civil rights movement." Then, citing a line from the Jewish liturgy, he said, "Justice, justice you shall pursue."

During his earlier interview in Jerusalem, his spartan office decorated only with a framed photo of his three children and one of King, he said, “We, the Arabs inside Israel, are the only ones who see both sides. When Palestinians cry for their children, the Jews don’t see it at all. When the Jews are attacked, the Palestinians don’t see it.”

Disparate Parties

And while that kind of empathy plays well with many, especially abroad, so far Odeh has done little to live up to his words. This is partly because he is trying to hold together widely disparate parties, partly because the Israeli government is run by the hawkish Likud party of Netanyahu and partly because the recent violence has driven the two communities further apart.

“It was an impressive feat for him to bring all the Arab parties together into one faction, but that’s about as far as it can go in current circumstances,” observed Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. “It’s hard enough for him to keep the Communists and the Islamists together. If he is seen as compromising with Likud, it’s going to tear his party apart.”

Arab Israelis also call themselves Palestinian citizens of Israel. Unlike the 4.5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem -- which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war -- they are considered legal equals to the Jewish majority, although economic and social gaps are substantial and discrimination is common.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called attention to that gulf as he began a trip to the U.S. this week that includes a White House meeting with President Barack Obama. Writing in the Washington Post, Rivlin said Israel needs to improve services both to Arab citizens and the Palestinians, while also proposing an educational plan that would enable most Jews in Israel to speak Arabic.

“We are duty bound to recognize where and how we can take effective action to improve the prospect that we will be able to live together, Jews and Arabs, in our region as we are destined rather than doomed to do,” Rivlin wrote.

Switched Idols

As a young man, Odeh says, he idolized Malcolm X, the radical U.S. black activist of the 1960s, but as he grew more mature he came to adopt the outlook of King, who sought reconciliation and equality through nonviolence.

Maintaining that outlook has become difficult amid the wave of Palestinian knife attacks in recent months. Scores of Israelis and Palestinians have been killed and hurt, polarizing political debate.

Odeh, who has neither condemned nor supported the violence, has therefore become a lightning rod for criticism. Israelis complain that he doesn’t speak out against the bloodshed while Palestinians accuse him of being too conciliatory.

An October television appearance from Nazareth, Israel’s biggest Arab city, illustrated still another complaint Odeh faces within his own constituency -- that he has become bad for business. As he was being interviewed live on the city’s main street, Nazareth Mayor Ali Salem drove alongside and berated him on live TV. Salem accused the young politician of organizing anti-government demonstrations that drew thousands and chased tourists and shoppers from the city, a magnet for Christian pilgrims. Odeh didn’t respond on television and dismisses Salem as part of the old guard in Israeli Arab politics.

No Peace Horizon

Odeh, named to Foreign Policy’s 2015 list of 100 Leading Global Thinkers, went to Washington to join a forum organized by the magazine. He met officials from the White House, State Department and Congress, along with American leaders of the Palestinian and Jewish communities.

On Middle East peace, he blames Netanyahu and Abbas for giving up hope.

“People see no horizon for peace,” said Odeh, chairman of the Joint Arab List in the Israeli parliament. “You can’t just manage the situation when there’s no hope. Eventually it’s going to explode.”

While emphatically opposing violence in general, Odeh says he won’t condemn the West Bank Palestinians for “fighting for their legitimate rights and against the occupation. I can’t live in Haifa, in the beautiful Carmel mountains, and tell the Palestinians how to conduct their struggle.”

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