Two weeks ago, President Donald Trump appeared to toss aside decades of US foreign policy by saying Washington was no longer wedded to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Israeli lawmaker Ayman Odeh, a Palestinian who heads the third-largest coalition in the Israeli parliament, has a very blunt response: Doing so would lead to Israel becoming an apartheid state.
“I want to be clear,” Odeh said during a wide-ranging interview with Vox late last week. “A single state today [would be] an apartheid state. The effect of talking about one state at the moment is only legitimizing the settlements.”
There is currently no mechanism, he added, that could build “one democratic state.”
Odeh, a secular Muslim who speaks several languages fluently, is the head of a coalition of Arab political parties known as the Joint List, which captured 13 seats in the 120-seat parliament in Israel’s 2015 election.
Odeh publicly questions where he fits in the Zionist narrative and fully embraces his life in Israel, and all the complications those dueling ideas imply. The 42-year-old represents both the promise and the challenges of practicing democracy in Israel.
He often underscores that he recognizes the Jewish right to self-determination, but stresses the importance of expanding the rights of both Palestinians in the West Bank and Israeli Arabs. He is also a firm believer in the need to create a Palestinian state.
In a long, flattering profile of him in the New Yorker last January, Odeh told David Remnick that when he first walked into the Knesset, where the walls are lined with photos of Israel’s founders, “I felt as if I were choking.” Last year he got himself into a bit of hot water when he asked to move a scheduled meeting with the head of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations when he discovered it would be held in the same space at the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency, which promotes aliyah, Jewish immigration to Israel. It was widely reported he refused to meet with these Jewish leaders, rather than the slightly more complicated issue of the location. The meeting was scuttled.
Odeh isn’t just concerned with the occupation of the West Bank. He is keenly conscious of discrimination against the Arab minority in Israel. He himself was recently hit by a foam-tipped bullet at a protest against the demolition of an unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev desert, in southern Israel, one of 36 such villages that have existed for decades off the grid, without government-provided water or electricity. The injury was still visible when we spoke, a healed gash on the side of his head.
Odeh is married to Nardin Asleh, an OB-GYN. They have three children. His wife’s youngest brother was killed by Israeli security forces during a protest in October 2000, following then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount. His name was Asel Asleh, and he was shot wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of Seeds of Peace, an organization he had participated in that was created to build bridges between Jewish and Arab teenagers. He was 17.
Witnesses said Asleh was demonstrating peacefully. When asked about his brother-in-law, Odeh’s handlers told me he did not like to talk about the incident, which remains a source of great trauma to the family.
In his conversation with Vox, Odeh spoke about the two-state solution, Netanyahu, the complexity of life as a Palestinian and Israeli citizen, and his belief that equality and a shared future is not only possible, but essential.
Odeh spoke in Hebrew, with translation to English by one of his staffers. What follows are portions of our conversation. It was conducted primarily in person, and followed up over email. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
In a joint press conference with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Donald Trump, Trump said he would be open to either a two-state or a one-state solution. What do you think about one state versus two states?
When Trump speaks, it’s impossible to know if he is serious or if it is something he just spontaneously thought of on the spur of the moment, especially since the people around him quickly after that said no, the policy of the United States is still the two-state solution.
And let's be honest: All the presidents before Trump also said they want a two-state solution, but they didn't do enough to promote or really work toward this solution.
I want to be clear: A single state today [would be] an apartheid state.
The effect of talking about one state at the moment is only legitimizing the settlements. At the moment, we don’t have any means of building one democratic state. I think the Palestinian people have struggled for many years. They have now reached the point that almost the entire world is supportive of the two-state solution. We saw that in UN Resolution 2334. [Passed in December, this condemned settlements. The Obama administration abstained from the vote.]
But it is also very important to note that more than half of the Israeli population is also in favor of the two-state solution.
This is not the moment to discard the two-state solution.
Can you tell me your initial reaction to the press conference?
I felt that Netanyahu is more comfortable with Trump than he is in the Knesset. He felt very much at home. Over the past couple of decades, the American administrations didn't do enough to bring about the two-state solution, and American financial support to the Israeli military has even made peace more difficult to achieve.
When I saw the press conference, I thought that it is now clearer than ever that the peace process will need to involve other members of the international community — it cannot be brokered by America alone. Of course, the response of people in Israel to the rise of Trump, including the proposal to annex Palestinian territory, should worry anyone who wants to see a peaceful future.
To be honest, the thing I was most worried about from the Trump and Netanyahu meeting is the feeling of closeness between these two leaders. Both of them came into power through inciting against minorities. And both of them have continued, after their elections, a policy of hatred and incitement and fear.
Now I can better understand why the Israeli right and Netanyahu were celebrating when Trump won.
Can you elaborate on that?
They have many shared values and mutual ideas.
The Israeli right understood that Trump’s election seemed to give them the “okay” to start annexing parts of the West Bank.
You've told me that Netanyahu discriminates against Arabs, and have used the phrase "apartheid-like policy." Is that the right word to apply to a democracy like Israel? Do you really see it as a direct parallel with South Africa?
I am an Arab in Knesset, so I cannot say there is apartheid inside Israel. I can say there is racism and discrimination in hospitals, in Knesset, in the courts, in schools, in all walks of life. But not apartheid.
But in the field of [housing and land policy], there is an apartheid policy.
[Here Odeh cited a series of statistics later confirmed by Adalah, the Legal Center for Minority Rights in Israel, including the number of Jewish towns built (about 600) and for Arabs, almost zero, since the state began, the problem of severe overcrowding in Arab towns, and the issue of unrecognized villages in the Negev desert.]
You didn't go to former Prime Minister Shimon Peres’s funeral. And you said that you asked some 300 people for advice in making that choice. What were the points you were weighing?
Peres, for tens of years, was a part of the Nakba [the Arabic word for catastrophe — and the way Palestinians describe the creation of the state of Israel]. He played a part in the military rule over us.
I am not only a man of history. I accept that people change. But, in the past 10 years Peres supported three horrible wars that took so many lives in Gaza. And yet, in truth, there were two very important points [in favor of attending]. One is of course [Peres’s role in the] Oslo peace accords.
Then his funeral was the 30th of September. And the day after that, we had the memorials of the victims of the October events. In [October] 2000, 13 Arab citizens of Israel were killed. One was the youngest brother of my wife. And Peres was a minister in this government. So, you know, on the balance it was very close, but in the end I chose not to be a part of the funeral.
Peres’s funeral wasn't just a private event of mourning for a person. It was a national event where collective memory is being shaped. And it was a part of the way a nation shapes its symbols and citizenship, and I am not a part of all that. You wouldn't find anything of me in any of the state of Israel symbols. So in a way, this decision was also to push back at this hegemony.
It seems like American Jews have been eager to hear from you. Do you feel it’s easier here than in Israel to be heard by the Jewish community?
We can see that the Jewish people here are not under the spell of the racism and incitement of the Israeli government. And there is no doubt that there are democratic values here that are more inherent than what you see in Israel.
Israel is going quite rapidly in a bad direction.
I think one of the moments of moral clarity [in the United States] was when the Jewish community here supported the struggle of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights struggle.
Martin Luther King Jr. was perceived, in his days, as a radical. Today they understand he was an asset to the entire United States. This is why I think it is easier for people here to understand that our struggle for equality and democracy is an asset to all the citizens of Israel, and not only for us.