Arab List Chairman Reveals His Subversive Past

Countless arrests, influence from PLO and intifada,
in-law who died attacking IDF, 'Arabizing' Haifa - and now head of third-largest party.

Ari Yashar ,

Ayman Odeh
Ayman Odeh
Basel Awidat/Flash 90

The joint Arab party list came in third place on elections Tuesday, scooping up 13 seats and taking the Arab Israeli parties to their single biggest election win yet. The list features overt supporters of Hamas, like MK Hanin Zoabi, and MK Ahmed Tibi, former adviser to arch terrorist Yasser Arafat - but just who is leading the party?

AFP spoke with the chairman, 40-year-old lawyer Ayman Odeh, who became an MK for the first time in the current elections after becoming secretary general of the Arab Communist Hadash party in 2006, and then being named head of the joint list after Hadash, United Arab List (UAL), Balad and Tibi's split-off faction all unified.

While the different parties represent different Arab communities, with Balad being aligned with those in the Galilee and the north, UAL with Bedouin in the south, and Hadash with Arab socialists, the outgoing coalition's move to raise the threshold percentage brought them all together to ensure a place in the Knesset.

Odeh told AFP he feels a "great responsibility" on his shoulders, heading a party that represents the Arab citizens of Israel, who make up 20% of the state's population.

He will launch his parliamentary career by walking from the Negev in the south to the Knesset in Jerusalem, a hike of over 60 miles, in a symbolic act to show he will represent the Bedouin Arabs of the south.

Odeh has made clear he intends to oppose Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who defeated Labor by gaining 30 seats in elections. On election day Netanyahu announced that "Arab voters are coming out in droves," warning the phenomenon could lead to a leftist coalition willing to make large concessions on the security of Israel.

"If the democratic camp weakens, fascism will begin to take victims, and the first will be the Arabs," Odeh claimed in response in a radio interview.

The Arab party leader also claimed to the Guardian that "we will be an alternative camp, the democratic camp - where Arabs and Jews are equal partners, not enemies." His list features only one Jew, radical Communist MK Dov Khenin of Hadash.

Criminal and terror background

Odeh was born to a mason in Haifa, a mixed Jewish and Arab city, and became active politically back in his high school days when he headed the student council.

His activities took him beyond the confines of the law, as he was arrested on numerous occasions for taking part in often violent protests. Odeh acknowledged that he came to the attention of the Israel Security Agency (ISA or Shin Bet) "at an early age."

Odeh admits his political outlook growing up was influenced by the growth of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) – internationally recognized as a terrorist organization until the onerous status was removed in the 1993 Oslo Accords – along with the Lebanon War in 1982 and the so-called First Intifada terror war that began in 1987.

"At home, we talked of nothing but these events and they filled the press and forged my convictions," he said, indicating his identification with the rise of the PLO and the bloody terror war that brought death on Israel.

In 2001, shortly after the start of the Second Intifada or Oslo terror war as it is conversely known, the 17-year-old brother of his wife Nardin Asleh was killed while taking part in a violent clash with Israeli police.

Making Haifa Arab, encouraging IDF dodging

Speaking about his position as head of the joint list despite his young age, Odeh told AFP, "yes, I'm the youngest candidate on the list, but I began my activities in the 1990s."

He entered politics in 1998 when he was elected to the Haifa city council, where he served for the next five years.

During that time, he used his position to change the nature of the coastal city and push it in the direction of being more Arab, by, among other things, getting many streets with Hebrew names renamed in Arabic.

His activities have not been limited to Haifa, however. In 2009 when Israel did not recognize 40 Bedouin Arab villages that were illegally established in the Negev without permission, he camped out for a month with the Bedouins to identify with them and support them.

Another front he has been active on is fighting against IDF service.

Back in 2006 he traveled around Israel to meet with the Druze community and try to convince them to refuse IDF service, as the option of making Druze service mandatory was being discussed. That issue of mandatory service has recently come up again regarding Arab Christians.