Odeh driving force for United Arab List in Israeli elections

Haifa lawyer aiming for 3rd largest presence in Knesset

11 March, 19:17

    (by Massimo Lomonaco) (ANSAmed) - TEL AVIV, MARCH 11 - If Arabs end up being the third or fourth largest group in the Israeli parliament in its next legislature, they will owe it in part to Ayman Odeh.

    The charismatic 41-year-old leads the United Arab List, formed in the run-up to the March 17 elections. Some polls say that the party is expected to get about 13 seats of the 120 total in the Knesset. The strength of Odeh - very different from Haneen Zoabi, for example, another high-profile Arab politician in the Knesset - does not lie only so much in the difficult but eventually achieved electoral unity of Israeli Arabs (about 1.5 million) but in his history.

    Virtually unknown to the larger Israeli public, Odeh is from the northern Israel city of Haifa, which is held to have the better integration among its Jewish, Arab and Christian communities. A lawyer by profession, Odeh is a secularist from a Communist-leaning family but he calls himself a 'socialist and democrat': two concepts that he is at pains to keep separate. After gaining experience in the Haifa town council between 1998 and 2005, he became the secretary general of the Hadash party, which emphasizes Jewish-Arab collaboration and defines itself as non-Zionist. Most of its leaders and voters are Israeli Arabs. Odeh's greatest achievement was to unite Hadash with three other Arab parties - Balad, United List and Taal - in a broader front with high election aspirations. ''Between Zionist Camp (center-left) and National Camp (right) I want to create,'' he said in a recent interview with i24news, ''a Democratic Camp. I do not want to do it alone and not only with Arabs; I want to do it with and for Jews.

    Together.'' ''In the 2015 elections the word 'peace' has become obsolete. I am afraid that in the next elections,'' he said, ''the term 'democratic' will be rendered so as well.'' Odeh's program focuses on social issues.

    ''I want to speak,'' he said in the interview, ''to the weakest lower classes, those that are currently represented by Aryeh Deri (Shas, a religious party targeting Sephardic Jews, Ed.) and Moshe Kahlon (from Kulanu, a new party that split from Prime Minister Benyamin's right-wing Likud, Ed.). I want to be entirely dedicated to these social classes.'' Odeh added that ''While we fight over the definition of Israel as a Jewish state or a state of all its citizens, Israel is neither; it is the state of its tycoons who rule us all''. ''We want to have an impact,'' Mr Odeh said in an interview with the Financial Times. ''We want this 20 per cent to be players on the political scene, and not to be on the sidelines.'' However, Odeh opted not to sign an electoral pact with Meretz (left-wing party) that would have helped both. Meretz leaders (there are Israeli Arab representatives within the party) have spoken out harshly against Odeh's move.

    The question remains as to what sort of government influence Odeh could have on the basis of the vote.

    Participation in any center-left government led by the Labor party leader Isaac Herzog has been ruled out by both parties.

    However, this may change if Herzog is forced to make do with a minority government (61 seats), in which case external support from the United Arab List would be priceless.

    Some say that Odeh's party could then get the presidency of the important parliamentary committee for internal affairs. Meanwhile, prior to the elections Odeh has garnered support from Gideon Levy, one of the most famous Israeli op-ed writers for the liberal paper Haaretz. ''The United List,'' he said, ''is a clear ray of light in the electoral season'', urging both Arabs and Jews to vote for it. (ANSAmed).

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