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Arab Israeli Leader: 'We Are Living Proof That Arabs And Jews Can Refuse To Be Enemies'

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 12/12/2015 Charlotte Alfred

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. We recently spoke with Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List coalition in Israel's parliament.

Ayman Odeh made history in March when he led a coalition of four predominantly Arab political parties called the Joint List to win around 10 percent of votes in Israel's election, making it the third largest faction in the Israeli parliament.

The Joint List pledged to fight against discriminatory policies and racism against Palestinian citizens of Israel and other marginalized groups in Israel. Palestinians citizens, often referred to as Israeli Arabs, make up around 20 percent of the population of Israel.

The election gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a fourth term in office after his nationalist Likud party won the most seats and managed to form a razor-thin majority coalition government.

The months since the election have seen a hardening of the political environment amid a spike in violence on the streets of Israel and the West Bank.  At least 19 Israelis have been killed in a wave of Palestinian knife, vehicle and gun attacks since September. At least 112 Palestinians have been killed in the same period, including suspected attackers and people participating in protests. 

The World Post spoke to Odeh, who is visiting the U.S. in an effort to bring the voices of Palestinian citizens of Israel to bear on discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Since the election, has the Joint List been able to have much impact on the Israeli political conversation or the struggles of the Palestinian minority?

There is no doubt that this last election brought us the most racist government we have had in at least 20 years. But we keep working on both aspects -- influencing public consciousness and making practical changes.

Regarding the public consciousness, we are starting to forge connections between different kinds of marginalized groups in Israel. For example, earlier this year there was a wave of demonstrations by Ethiopian Jews against police violence, and as the leader of the Arab minority, I decided to join them. While it is our moral stance to be with any marginalized group, there is also a pragmatic reason -- I want to make these connections, I want to stand with them, and then they will stand with us.

On the practical level, we are working with the finance ministry on an important plan on employment, and a big part of that is increasing women’s employment. It's not our dream plan, but it’s a plan that is being worked out with us.

The biggest challenge is to convince [the Israeli] people that our interests are mutual. It is not me against you. For example, if we succeed in raising the participation of Arab women in the workforce, this is good for the Arab population and it's also good for the economy. The struggle for equality is really a struggle for democracy, and that’s why it’s a struggle for all the population.  The Joint List represents Arabs and Jews, and this is living proof that Arabs and Jews can refuse to be enemies and live together.

The biggest challenge is to convince people that our interests are mutual. It is not me against you.

How do you manage tensions within the Joint List coalition? Do you think it can hold together for another election?

I agree with myself on 80 percent of things, but when I look at myself in the mirror in the morning I still have inner debates about the right thing to do. So of course, between 13 members of four parties there are inner arguments. Sometimes there are harsh arguments -- that’s more than natural. We sit together every Monday and we argue, and then we take a decision. But I can promise you we will run in the next election as well. 

You said the reason for this visit to the U.S. is to bring the voices of Palestinian citizens of Israel to American political leaders. What would you like the U.S. to do differently regarding policy toward Israel?

We have a lot of anger about the foreign policy of the U.S. I think all the peoples of the East are angry at America. The U.S. is friends with dictatorial regimes, then invades places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and what happens afterwards is a catastrophe. In the place of their leaders, fundamentalist movements that use the name of Islam spring up, and all that’s left is terror and bloodshed. 

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue, it's not that there is a problem with American policy regarding Israel, it’s that American policy is the problem. In the last meeting between Netanyahu and Obama it seemed like America wiped their hands of the situation. But in reality, the U.S. gave billions of dollars to Israel, some of which goes to the military, to deepening the occupation. If America would really stand behind the two-state solution they could make real pressure on Israel.

The current wave of deadly violence in Israel and the West Bank has now been going on for months. What do Abbas and Netanyahu need to do in order to end the loss of life? 

I want to be very clear, I don’t believe there will ever be a more pragmatic leader than Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas], and I think most of the world today knows that the big problem is the Israeli government.

I understand that there are many dreams, but in the end we need to reach a historic reconciliation. I sat alone with Netanyahu and said to him: 'Lets talk about the bottom line, do you agree to a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders?' And he said no. 

The occupation is the Palestinian people’s tragedy. But it also is the Israeli people’s prison.

We have to remove all citizens from violence and bloodshed. We can talk a lot about how to kill mosquitoes, but at the end of the day we need to dry out the swamp. The occupation is the source of all bad in our region. I’ve said again and again that we need to free both peoples from this horrific occupation. Occupation harms first and foremost the Palestinian people, but it also harms the Israeli people so deeply.

There is a saying that a people who occupies another people cannot be free. I want to challenge that slightly: There isn’t a people here who is occupying another people, there is a system that is oppressing both people. The occupation is the Palestinian people’s tragedy. But it also is the Israeli people’s prison. We want to liberate both peoples from the occupation.

The interview took place on Wednesday Oct. 9 in New York, with the assistance of Hebrew translators. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.


More from The WorldPost's Weekly Interview Series:

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- Formerly Jailed Journalist Explains Iran's Recent Crackdown On Dissent            - Why Myanmar's Upcoming Election Is So Historic

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