Mr. Odeh Goes to Washington (and not everyone’s happy about it)

Joint List head Ayman Odeh headed to the United States this week, prompting mixed reactions from Israel’s Palestinian citizens. Odeh: ‘I am here to tear the mask off of Netanyahu’s lies.’

Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh speaks on a panel during the Peace Now conference, July 24, 2015. (photo: Shalom Anasi)
Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh speaks on a panel during the Peace Now conference, July 24, 2015. (photo: Shalom Anasi)

Perhaps I am foolish and do not understand the ambush of the Palestinian people that awaits Joint List head Ayman Odeh when he visits Uncle Sam? Perhaps the decision by Foreign Policy Magazine to choose him as a “global challenger” is really just part of a plot to bring him down? To force Odeh to swear allegiance to the flag of the state of the Jewish people?

This week Odeh traveled to the U.S. as the chairman of the Joint List for the first time, a diplomatic visit that will include a stop at the Haaretz conference in New York; public speaking events; and meetings with members of Congress, representatives of the State Department and the White House, Palestinian and Jewish activists, civil rights leaders, and more. The visit led to heated arguments on social networks in Arabic — which eventually made their way to the media — over whether Odeh should have even visited in the first place.

Opponents of the decision, which include social and political activists, claim that he is either “a traitor trying to undermine the Palestinian people,” or “naive and does not understand global politics by traveling to the snake pit of America, the source of evil and terror against the Arabs.” There are those who have hinted that a lot of Jewish money has been poured into the visit, while others criticized the attempt to represent Arab society on the international stage, arguing that Odeh does not speak in their name. The saner voices called on Odeh to come home and not despair when he finds out that U.S. policy is soundly behind Israel. “Just buy some cologne at the duty free and come home. The game is rigged!”

The discussion is, of course, legitimate, and I am happy there are many who are following the activities of members of Knesset and the Joint List. I can also understand the frustration and desperation due to the current government, not to mention the growing fascism and aggression toward Palestinians. The situation is dire, to say the least. A trip by the elected leader of the largest minority in the country may be seen as an attempt to take a page out of the book of the much vaunted democratic discourse in America, like putting makeup on Israel’s ugly face — a country that pretends to be democratic while oppressing and persecuting a fifth of its population.

So I asked. Odeh’s office responded as follows: “The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Peace is hosting a reception of the delegation, to which all the ambassadors — including those of Arab countries — were invited.” I was also told by Odeh’s staff members that the trip is not fully funded by any one individual or organization. The flight tickets and some of the hotel fees were paid for by different organizations such as Foreign Policy Magazine and the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Peace, as is customary in the world of social and political activism. The delegation is not traveling on behalf of the Foreign Ministry or the Jewish Federation, which often funds trips by Israeli public officials.

Most of the people I know analyze the reality of Palestinians in Israel more or less the same way. We are all against demolishing unrecognized villages, we are all against silencing dissent and banning the Islamic Movement, we all support equal rights and an end to the occupation. So what is so wrong if Ayman Odeh goes to Israel’s greatest ally and does the same thing from there?

What do the critics want? That he fly only if he is promised that Obama will change his policy vis-a-vis Israel? That he does not meet with anyone who thinks differently than what we Palestinians think and believe? That Palestinian representatives need to forever cooperate with a few Zionists who believe they belong to the Left? That political activity begins and ends with votes of no-confidence, in zero-sum games with Meretz and the Zionist Union within the bounds of local politics?

Are the people attacking Odeh today unaware of what he thinks, what he believes in, and how he is trying to promote the public agenda he is leading? There are those who unequivocally oppose Odeh’s ideology — that’s fine, since we should be able to argue with his vision and direction. But to act as if Odeh does not himself know the significance of the relationship between the United States and Israel? As if the chairman of the Joint List and a member of Hadash has never heard about foreign aid to Israel and security coordination in the Middle East? Do they think he simply does not understand the map of global power?

Odeh just wants to be able to play in the big leagues, and if the situation truly is irreparable, the least he can do is let it be known to congresspeople who remain in the thralls of AIPAC and the only democracy in the Middle East.

Joint List leader, Ayman Odeh, speaks during the party’s Hebrew-language launch event, Tel Aviv, February 11, 2015. (Photo: Activestills.org)
Joint List leader, Ayman Odeh, speaks during the party’s Hebrew-language launch event, Tel Aviv, February 11, 2015. (Photo: Activestills.org)

During his visit, Odeh will speak about the Israeli government’s decision to ban the Islamic Movement, about the unrecognized villages, the persecution and murder of innocents. Or in his words: “I flew to the United States in order to raise the issues and problems of the Arab public on the international stage. I am speaking here about institutionalized discrimination, of the national face of poverty, and the hundreds of thousands who live without electricity or water under constant threat of expulsion from their land.

“I am here to tear the mask off of Netanyahu’s lies, who has based his rule on inciting against us and continues to try and convince the world that he can manage the conflict. One cannot manage a people under occupation and military rule, the conflict cannot be managed. It can only be solved through ending the occupation and a peace agreement based on justice and independence for both nations.”

It is clear that U.S. policy vis-a-vis Israel will not change following Odeh’s visit. The occupation won’t end, even if Odeh meets with President Obama himself. But we can encourage American politicians to understand the complexity of the situation here, to ask questions and fight against the story Israel is selling to the world.

We won’t see the effect of Odeh’s visit immediately, but we must continue to try and build bridges to the international community. Currently all the members of the Joint List are acting as lone wolves, and often times say or do something without coordinating with the others. On the face of it, the job of the minority is simple. In reality, it is much more difficult: “the organize,” demand, protest, rebel, go against the oppressive majority, and challenge the rules of the game. On the court.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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