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This Palestinian-Israeli Lawmaker Still Believes in the Two-State Solution

Ayman Odeh was 16 when he was called in for chats with the Shin Bet security service. In his 40s, he was Israeli Jews' favorite Arab politician. Now he is bowing out of party politics, but not because he has abandoned the dream of a better future.

When Ayman Odeh announced last May that he wouldn't stand again for either the Knesset or the leadership of his Hadash party, the sun didn't stand still in the sky and the Jordan River didn't reverse its trickle.

For those who did take notice, Odeh's departure from the Knesset was likely a foregone conclusion. Many Jews who consider themselves centrists or leftists had given up on him a while ago. The Joint List of Arab parties that he brought together in an alliance in 2015 and that succeeded in bringing Arab voters back to the polls for a while, has long since broken up – the main beneficiary being the Islamist United Arab List and its leader, Mansour Abbas. And the rules of Odeh's own party made it highly unlikely that his colleagues would choose him as leader again.

Odeh's parliamentary career may be ending in disappointment, but he insists that he is not leaving public life. Instead, he plans to devote himself fully to an issue he is certain Israelis can no longer afford to ignore, especially in the aftermath of October 7: the end of the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state at Israel's side.

Yes, Ayman Odeh still believes in the two-state solution.

When I met him in his Knesset office last month (Odeh's departure won't take place before Hadash elects a new leader, which could be as long the Netanyahu government lasts, theoretically until 2026), I asked incredulously if he honestly expected to find many takers for his message.

He responded with a line of Hebrew verse that translates as "I shall yet have faith in mankind / In its spirit great and bold," and asked if I recognized it. I didn't, and Odeh gleefully revealed that it was a line from the poem "I Believe" by Shaul Tchernichovsky (better known as "Sakhki, Sakhki," its musical version has been a standard in the Zionist songbook for more than a century).

If the message wasn't clear, Odeh elaborated: "I'm optimistic, and I believe very deeply in two peoples."

It wasn't so long ago that Odeh was widely admired among both of those peoples. He was the rookie lawmaker who had saved four different political Arab factions from potential electoral oblivion by bringing them together in a united front, eventually bringing them a best-ever tally of 15 seats in the 2020 election.

Nonetheless, that numerical power was not translated into political power, both because of the inbred aversion of nearly all the Zionist parties to relate to the Arab citizenry as legitimate stakeholders, but also because of a habitual inability of the Arab parties to imagine themselves as anything other than part of the opposition. In his own Hadash party, the communist old-timers constituted a "politburo" whose members "drove him crazy," as one former party activist told me, and even would "oppose things it believed in if they were proposed by Ayman," as another observer noted.

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With his personal warmth, a message of social justice, and his active identification with working-class people and underprivileged minorities like Jewish Israelis of Ethiopian descent, Odeh won over audiences both at home and abroad, including, in 2016, a flattering profile in The New Yorker.

The first time I met Odeh was in 2015, shortly after the High Court of Justice had given the green light to a government plan to demolish the Negev village of Umm al-Hiran, to make room for construction of a new Jewish town. Odeh, who had already taken on the cause of the unrecognized Bedouin villages as a personal mission, told me about his recent visit to this one, saying that it was "important that you feel my pain. This story of Umm al-Hiran, it affects me in my very soul." Odeh then covered his face with his hands and didn't speak for over a minute while he composed himself.

An injured Ayman Odeh at the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran after clashes between protesters and police in 2017.

An injured Ayman Odeh at the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran after clashes between protesters and police in 2017.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Odeh's passion and compassion come across on television as well as in person, and he quickly worked his way into the hearts of many Jewish Israelis, while getting under the skin of politicians who don't appreciate Arabs acting like this is their land too.

'The occupation forces'

In the spring of 2022, however, when the issue of Muslims' access to the Temple Mount during Ramadan led to clashes between Arab civilians and security forces both in East Jerusalem and around the country, Odeh released a social media clip that did little to calm tensions.

Speaking in Arabic, against a background image of the Old City's Damascus Gate, Odeh condemned the heavy hand being employed by police and Border Police in East Jerusalem, and urged Arab citizens not to join "the occupation forces." Addressing the tiny number of Arabs who had already done just that, he advised them to "throw your weapons in [the] face" of the Israeli security establishment. He added in his hopes for the end of the "murderous occupation" and the establishment of a Palestinian state, in which "Palestinian flags will be hoisted on the walls of Jerusalem."

If you weren't part of the clip's target audience, you were not likely to understand just what Odeh was proposing. You did get that he was angry, though, and the Hebrew media was happy to replay his address. By the following day, when Odeh clarified that he had been addressing Israeli Arabs serving in "occupied" East Jerusalem, not in Israel proper, few were paying attention. Most Israeli Jews don't accept or even understand the contested legal status of Jerusalem, and East Jerusalem in particular, and hearing Odeh – the figure who many Jews had increasingly viewed as a potential bridge between them and their Arab fellow citizens – urging listeners to "throw" their weapons at the Jews was unsettling.

Odeh has always been opposed to Arab Israelis serving in the army, and even to the idea of their doing civilian national service – as long as the latter service continues being administered by the Defense Ministry. But now he seemed to be calling on them to avoid joining the Israel Police, even as the government of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid was working strenuously to recruit more Arabs to its ranks as part of its attempt to contend with the alarming rates of violent crime in Arab communities.

At this point, even Jewish politicians and commentators on the left were washing their hands of a man they had always depended on to be conciliatory. And Odeh did not seem to be going out of his way to regain their goodwill.

עבאס לפיד בנט קואליציה

United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas, right, signing a coalition agreement with Yair Lapid, left, and Naftali Bennett in June 2021.Credit: United Arab List Raam / AFP

It wasn't hard to connect his bad mood with the frustration he had to feel at the entry of MK Mansour Abbas and his socially conservative United Arab List into the "government of change" the preceding June. The political arm of the Southern Branch of Israel's Islamic Movement (itself an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood), Abbas' party had been the first faction to pull out of the Joint List, running independently in 2021. Soon after, it was the first Arab party to join a government – and now it was Abbas who was being profiled in The New Yorker.

'The good Arab'

A soft-spoken dentist from the Druze-Muslim-Christian village of Maghar who joined the Knesset only in 2019, Mansour Abbas first came to national prominence when he openly negotiated with Benjamin Netanyahu over the terms for the United Arab List to join a right-wing coalition, prior to the March 2021 election. The readiness of both parties even to have that discussion was earthshaking, even though in the end Netanyahu backed down and Abbas went on to make history by joining forces with Bennett and Lapid in their governing coalition.

Abbas quickly replaced Odeh as the "good Arab" in the hearts of Israeli Jews – many of whom to this day admire how in the terrible violence of May 2021, he visited a synagogue in Lod that had been torched by Arabs during the rioting in that mixed-population city. He has moved the Palestinian national issue to the political back burner, giving priority instead to the crime epidemic in Arab society and to the severe discrimination suffered by the Negev Bedouin, who make up a large part of his constituency.

לוד מהומות ערבים יהודים

A Rabbi inspecting the damage inside a torched religious school in the central Israeli city of Lod in May 2021. Mansour Abbas impressed many Israeli Jews by visiting a damaged synagogue in the city.Credit: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP

Adam Raz, a historian at the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research, believes that Odeh "wanted to do what Mansour Abbas did, but within his [Hadash] party they wouldn't let him do it." Following the elections of both March 2020 and March 2021, Odeh had persuaded his Joint List colleagues to recommend that the mandate to form a government be given to Kahol Lavan party head Benny Gantz – though the latter never considered inviting the Joint List into a potential governing coalition.

Interviewed last March on Kan public television, Odeh told Roni Koban that whereas he had spoken "about a partnership of equals, [Abbas ] wanted a partnership where he is the horse and the Jew is the rider." He also acknowledged that he hadn't exchanged a word with Abbas in two years – although when I met him in December, he told me they were talking and cooperating again.

Sometimes it seems like Odeh needlessly puts principle before pragmatism, with a stubbornness that is not always self-evident. In 2020, for example, when the Knesset voted to approve the Abraham Accords – the agreements that resulted in mutual recognition between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – the Joint List was the only party that opposed them.

At the time, Odeh said normalization with the Gulf states should not take place until the occupation ends , adding that "the fancy ceremony in Washington is not a historic peace treaty but a historic weapons deal." He stands by that position today, telling me that he does believe in normalization with the Arab world – "five minutes after the Palestinian people get their state."

According to Arik Rudnitzky, who directs the Israel Democracy Institute's Program on Arab Society, however, "You can understand historical positions, and the principles involved. But once the treaties were signed and brought to the Knesset, and it was clear that they would pass, the Joint List was the only one opposed." That, he insists, was "incomprehensible."

Starting a peace movement

Ayman Odeh, who turned 49 on New Year's Day, grew up in a secular-Muslim, working-class family in Haifa. He began attending Arab political demonstrations when he was 13, but it wasn't until he was 16 that he was called in for the first of a series of chats with the Shin Bet security service. They let him know they had been watching him, and led him to understand that if he continued with his Palestinian activism, it could undermine his plans for the future.

Odeh at the Knesset in June 2022.

Odeh at the Knesset in June 2022.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

No violence was employed and no charges were brought against him, but Ayman was frightened and so were his parents. (When his father picked him up from the first interview, he was so nervous that he immediately crashed the family car, totaling it.)

Instead of remaining in Israel and having to constantly look over his shoulder, in 1993 Odeh went to Romania to study law at the University of Craiova. There he also continued his informal political education.

Today, the walls of his Knesset office are hung with photographs of some of his heroes: Past leading lights of Israel's Communist Party, Arabs and Jews alike, but also Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.

I spent much of our hour-long meeting trying to extract from Odeh details of his plan for a Jewish-Arab citizens movement, but he wasn't cooperating. He explained only that the movement he envisioned would be democratic and that its precise agenda would be decided on collectively. He did say he recognized the need to attract Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent) – who have traditionally been supporters of the political right – to the cause, and he also said he would be appealing to Palestinians not only in Israel but also in the occupied territories and beyond.

But beyond saying that he's already talking with many different people, he wouldn't reveal the names of any billionaires, popular singers or even other politicians who had promised their support.

Open gallery view

ועדת בחירות כנסת 23

Ayman Odeh, Mansour Abbas and other members of the Joint List waiting to register their party before the 2021 election.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Odeh is serious, though. He knows that empathy is in short supply in these parts right now, and this may not appear to be the best time to start a peace movement, However, his feeling is that the current war is the perfect evidence, if any is needed, that Israel can no longer neglect the conflict.

After the unspeakable violence of October 7, says Odeh, "what can we expect in another 10 years? What will happen when AI allows a single individual to kill a million people by pushing a button? Are we going to wait for that moment?

"How long must it take for us to internalize that there are two peoples here? When will we understand that the national identity of both peoples is so strong that they are willing to sacrifice and sacrifice and sacrifice?"

He is aware that he has been accused of equivocating in his condemnation of the Hamas attack on Israel, and he requests that anything I write about him include his belief that "any attack on an innocent citizen is an attack on an entire world. I condemn as strongly as possible any murder of citizens in all situations, in any place. Period."

But of course, that's not quite what Israeli Jews want to hear, certainly not right now. They don't want to hear about context or about the suffering of innocents in Gaza.

Odeh says he does "understand people's sensitivity" in the period since that bloody Saturday. "That's why, during [Knesset committee] debates, week by week, I raise the tone just a little bit. But ultimately, I have to bring up the messages that I think are to the benefit of both peoples."

What's more, Odeh is convinced that he knows how to speak to both sides. "I can bring people together. I take this mission on myself. From morning to night, seven days a week, this will be my work."

Late last summer, he published a short book in Arabic, "Patriotism and Citizenship: A Vision for Renewing the Political Project of the Palestinian Citizens in Israel." In a review for Haaretz (in Hebrew), Jack Khoury explained that Odeh writes that Jews and Arabs don't need to agree on everything as long as the Jews accept several core goals: "ending the occupation, recognizing the historic injustice caused to the Palestinians in 1948, full equality for Arab citizens alongside preservation of the democracy and of social justice."

איימן עודה עטיפת ספר

Ayman Odeh's book, published last summer, looking at how Jewish-Arab partnership can save Israel.Credit: Kul Shee

In the book, Odeh also writes about strengthening the cultural and political institutions of Arab society in Israel. Not only does he explain the need to buttress local government in Arab towns, but he also imagines, reminiscent of Theodor Herzl in "The Old New Land," a physical compound that would house the offices of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee as well as a museum of Arab culture, a central Palestinian library and the offices of an "Arab National Fund," to initiate projects intended for the benefit of Israel's Arab citizens.

When I again wonder aloud whether Arabs or Jews are primed to contemplate such scenarios at present, Odeh responds in a manner I find far less encouraging than I think he intends.

He mentions his heroes Yitzhak Rabin, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, all of whom paid with their lives while trying to realize what they believed in. "We have to be courageous. Are we going to allow people who sanctify death and pessimism, and who don't believe in life – should we let them defeat us?"

It's true that Rabin paid with his life for his vision, but the way things look today, we're not any closer to fulfilling that vision than we were when Yigal Amir assassinated him in 1995.

According to one source who knows Odeh and his political milieu from "up close," and who asked not to be identified, Odeh is someone "who wants to create a big change. He didn't come to make little changes, like dealing with the sewers on the main street of Kalansua – although that's an important issue in and of itself."

That is also why he is leaving parliamentary politics, the source adds – because he wants to "create a different set of relations between the Israeli and Palestinian publics." Asked whether Odeh stands a chance of succeeding, the source responds: "Many more people see today that you can't ignore the Palestinian problem. But many people are very, very angry, and frightened, and are drawn to extreme solutions, of war. So it's going to be a big struggle between narratives. Which one will the Israel public choose in the end?"

More articles by David B. GreenFollow.

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