In a September 2019 New York Times op-ed, Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, a political alliance of major Palestinian parties, explained why he is backing Blue and White leader Benny Gantz as Israel’s new prime minister. Highlighting incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s legacy of instilling ‘fear and hate’, Odeh said the backing would increase the likelihood of Netanyahu, who failed to win a majority in the 17 September elections and has struggled to form a coalition, being denied another term.
The proclamation is notable because it is the first time since 1992 that a Palestinian party has supported a Jewish party, although Odeh was clear that this did not mean the Joint List would join a Blue and White-led coalition or that it endorsed Gantz in any way.
Odeh’s raised profile also saw him included in Time magazine’s 2019 100 Next list. In its description of the politician, the magazine wrote, ‘As the contest for leadership of the self-declared Jewish state teetered between right-wing and centrist factions, Odeh emerged not only as a possible kingmaker but also as a stirring new voice for equality and inclusion.’
Others were not as positive. Netanyahu was quick to attack, calling the Joint List’s support for Gantz a “historic national terror attack on the state of Israel” and an “existential threat”.
This is not the first time Netanyahu has portrayed the Joint List as a threat, warning at the time of its formation in 2015 that Arab voters would come out in droves. It nevertheless became the third-largest bloc in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, ironically as result of a new election law designed to limit Palestinian parliamentary representation, thrusting the father of three into the spotlight.
Born in 1975, Odeh grew up in the city of Haifa. The only Muslim in a Christian school, he speaks fluent Hebrew as well as Arabic, English and Romanian. He became politically engaged at a young age, attending his first demonstration on 30 March 1988, Land Day, aged 13. The next three years “were the most beautiful of my life”, he told The New Yorker. “I felt completely identified with the struggle.”
Eventually Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, caught up with him. Paranoid that he was being followed at every turn, he left the country in 1993 to study law in Romania. While there, he took part in many pro-Palestinian rallies and immersed himself in the political biographies of revolutionaries, recalling, “When I read Malcolm X, I didn’t agree with it all, but I inhaled it, I connected to his rage.” He returned to Israel with renewed vigour in 1997. He eventually became certified to practice law in 2001 but never became a member of the Israel Bar Association.
Instead, he became increasingly politically active, notably joining the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash), a far-left political party formed of the Israeli Communist Party and other leftist groups. He has been chairman of the party since 2015.
Other career milestones followed. One of them was his involvement in December 2006 in drafting ‘The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel’, a controversial document calling for Israel to become ‘a state of all its citizens’ and not just a Jewish state.
He also worked effectively with the Israeli ministries, noted Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, securing support for Resolution no. 922, a $4.3 billion economic development plan for the Palestinian sector over five years. “It’s unprecedented,” he told Fanack. “It still doesn’t do enough to correct the vast gaps, but it is still unprecedented.”
When Odeh entered politics, he was still influenced by the armed struggle in Palestine but realized the smaller things mattered as well. “I would go to the market in Haifa and Palestinian shopkeepers would say to me, ‘These things that you’re saying, it gives the Jews a reason not to come shop here,’” he told The New Yorker. “It taught me eventually that I had to think about the big issues but also about the everyday lives of the people who are living these issues.”
Hadash supports a two-state solution, but its partners in the Joint List such as Balad support a one-state solution. There is also an Islamist party within the alliance. Therefore, as well as navigating the challenges of being an Arab party in the Knesset, there are dramatic differences between the parties in the Joint List, which were compelled to work together to meet the proportional representation threshold after it was raised from 2 per cent to 3.25 per cent.
“Ayman needs to play two playing fields within the Joint List vis-a-vis the Jewish majority,” said Zalzberg, adding that Odeh’s particular leadership skills will be key in doing so.
Then there is the challenge of attracting further support for the goals that underpin Odeh’s top-line message: a shared and more equal future.
These goals include addressing rampant crime in Palestinian towns and cities as well as ensuring housing and planning laws provide residents with the same rights as their Jewish counterparts and better access to hospitals. Odeh has also outlined as part of the Joint List demands raising pensions for better elderly care, a programme to address violence against women, legal incorporation of unrecognized villages and towns that do not have access to electricity or water and a return to peace negotiations to establish an independent Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders. He also wants to repeal the 2018 nation-state law that says that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people only.
According to Zalzberg, rallying Arab voters behind a potential Gantz-led coalition could see negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization reestablished and curb settlement construction efforts, as the government may fear losing Arab support in the future.
Meanwhile, others have condemned Odeh’s choice not to boycott the process of forming a government. ‘While Odeh might warm the hearts of liberal Zionists in The New York Times who want to clean Israel’s image abroad by removing Netanyahu, there is nothing principled or dignified about endorsing a group of ex-army generals who have committed war crimes in the Occupied Territories and advocate annexation and permanent Jewish supremacy,’ wrote Bashir Abu-Manneh, a lecturer at the University of Kent, in Jacobin magazine, calling Odeh’s decision ‘opportunistic’.
Furthermore, Odeh’s endorsement may make little difference if Gantz decides to form a unity government with Netanyahu’s Likud party. Even if Netanyahu, who is facing multiple corruption charges, is removed from the picture, right-wing elements will remain firmly intact at the helm of the Knesset.