MK Ayman Odeh: “Don’t call me a demographic problem!”’

Ever since his election in January as chairman of the Joint List composed of Hadash and the Arab parties, one of the goals Knesset member Ayman Odeh has set for himself is the fight against the de-legitimization of the Arab population in Israel. Following last March 17’s general election in which the Joint List garnered 13 Knesset seats, thereby becoming the third-largest parliamentary block, Odeh has discovered that the challenges facing him are not confined to coping with Israel’s right-wing groups which mostly regard Israel’s Arabs as a menace. Rather, entire sectors of the Zionist left share, according to Odeh, the same offensive discourse. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Odeh said that the left “needs to consider the Arabs as a legitimate population in the country and not as some looming danger.”

Joint List Chairman MK Ayman Odeh (Hadash), former Labor chairwoman MK Shelly Yachimovich and Meretz chairwoman MK Zehava Galon at Peace Now conference in Tel-Aviv, July 24, 2015

Joint List Chairman MK Ayman Odeh (Hadash), former Labor chairwoman MK Shelly Yachimovich and Meretz chairwoman MK Zehava Galon at Peace Now conference in Tel-Aviv, July 24, 2015 (Photo: Peace Now)

Al-Monitor:  Knesset member Odeh, is the left really “killing you”? What do you mean by that?

Odeh:  I meant what I said. The Zionist left is giving Arabs hell, and I actually referred to three incidents that Labor-wing governments carried out against the Arab population and never expressed regret for: Kfar Qasim in 1956 [a massacre perpetrated by the Israel border police], the 1976 Land Day [following the expropriation of lands that sparked protests during which Arab Israelis were killed], and the events in October 2000 [which resulted in the death of 13 Arabs]. All those killings were perpetrated by Zionist left-leaning governments in Israel. Those who say that they want a Palestinian state side by side with Israel only in order to preserve a Jewish majority are being racist toward me, because as far as they’re concerned I’m a “demographic problem” for them. When [Zionist Camp leader] Isaac Herzog says that the 2005 disengagement from Gaza was justified demographically but not so from a security standpoint, I take umbrage at the word “demographic.” Even Yariv Oppenheimer, the director general of Peace Now, says he is in favor of the two-state solution because he wants to keep Israel a nation-state with a solid Jewish majority. I find this statement also to be racist toward me because I’m an Arab. The question remains whether we — the Arabs — are partners or a menace? All those statements about a Jewish majority and demographics portray me, or even my daughter, as a menace. That’s why the mindset needs to change. There’s no doubt that the greater danger comes from the right and not from the left, but to build a genuine left — one that can return to power — it needs to consider the Arabs as a legitimate population in the country and not as some looming danger. This is the only way to bolster the peace camp in the country.

Q:  You sound surprised by these statements, but the underpinning of the State of Israel, by definition, is a Jewish State. Those statements about demography and the desire to maintain a Jewish majority are nothing new or recent.

A:  I’m not surprised, but what I’m trying to do is to build a Jewish-Arab partnership, and I’m trying to instill in the mindset [of the left] to view Arab Israelis as a legitimate population. It is perceived to be illegitimate because the left is helping the right. I understand that the right wants to delegitimize the Arabs and let them have no say, because by doing so it neutralizes some 20% of the population. The [Zionist] left — playing into the hands of the right by also lashing out at the Arabs and considering them to be a demographic threat — is shooting itself in the foot. When the Zionist Camp sets out against the Arab leadership in the Knesset, I don’t take part in the commotion. But once the debate is over, I go to the office of the people who attacked us and I talk to them and explain that they’re helping the right. If they go after us instead of going after the right, they’re helping to delegitimize us. In my têteàtête with them, they admit that they were blustery, that it was too much and that they understand that I’m right. So I’ll keep on talking to them and I’ll keep trying to bring about change.

Q:  You talk about changing the mindset and you attack the left, but let me remind you of one fact: In the last elections, you — as a joint list — were opposed to a vote-sharing agreement with the Zionist leftist Meretz Party [where two parties share excess votes, to get an extra Knesset seat]. So what kind of cooperation are you talking about?

A:  In regard to the vote-sharing agreement with Meretz, I admit that that was a mistake. First of all, because we lost one seat. And that would have been a very important seat. Let me remind you that this is the very seat that gives the coalition [of Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu its one-seat majority of 61 Knesset members. But it goes beyond that. I’m also talking about the concept. If we can’t team up with Meretz, who else can we do it with? Back then I tried to convince my colleagues to sign a deal with Meretz, and I was critical of their position. I think today they realize their mistake.

Q:  Knesset member Zehava Gal-On, the chairwoman of Meretz, has said that they need to think of teaming up with the left, including the Joint List. Do you consider this to be a plausible option?

A:  If it’s running together in the general election, the answer is certainly no. But if we’re talking about some concrete alliances, a joint demonstration or activity for peace and for ending the occupation or for protecting the democratic sphere, then we can have shared activities.


MK Odeh: “The Right says ‘Death to Arabs’ but the Zionist Left will Be the Death of Us All”