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Odeh exposes the myth of Peres and Israel’s ‘peace camp’

The National – 6 October 2016

As world leaders congregated in Jerusalem last weekend to eulogise Shimon Peres as a “great peacemaker”, the peace camp of which he was the figurehead went to war against its main Palestinian partner in Israel.

Ayman Odeh, head of the only Jewish-Arab party in the Israeli legislature, is the most prominent representative of Israel’s 1.7 million Palestinian citizens. He also serves as chairman of a coalition called the Joint List, formed with other Palestinian parties, that is now the third largest in parliament.

Mr Odeh, nonetheless, enraged the Israeli Jewish public by refusing to attend Peres’s funeral.

The Joint List leader is known for his efforts to build bridges to deprived and vulnerable Jewish communities. He is committed to strengthening trust between Jews and Palestinians, rather than emphasising national conflict.

His advocacy for a new civic identity – abolishing Israel’s institutionalised ethnic categories of Jew and Arab – earned him a place last year on the top 100 global thinkers list compiled by Foreign Policy magazine.

So how, the Israeli media lamented, could he not pay his last respects to Peres, architect of the Oslo Accords?

Mr Odeh’s boycott of the funeral was all the more shocking to Israelis because Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, came to bid Peres farewell – after Israel issued him a rare permit to enter Jerusalem. Pictures of Mr Abbas and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands only underscored Mr Odeh’s absence.

But even that was hastily exploited to augment Peres’s beatification. If Peres had long proved his dedication to the cause of peace, Mr Odeh’s treatment of him in death confirmed that Israel lacked a Palestinian partner even inside Israel.

That is a narrative that Israeli Jews are only too familiar with. After the Oslo process collapsed at the Camp David summit in 2000, Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak – then head of the peace camp – accused Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat of being “no partner for peace”. This paved the way to the Second Intifada.

In similar fashion, Jewish politicians associated with the peace movement turned their fire on Mr Odeh. Erel Margalit, a member of parliament in the centre-left Zionist Union, accused him of “sticking a finger in the eyes” of the peace camp.

By contrast, for most Palestinians, it was Mr Abbas’s attendance at the funeral, not Mr Odeh’s boycott, that was baffling.

While Mr Odeh acknowledged the private grief of the Peres family, he argued that the funeral was “part of a national day of mourning in which I have no place”.

The mythical Peres honoured by the world is unrecognisable to Palestinians. They regard even his most visible achievement, the Oslo Accords, as a cynical trap. It was never designed to lead to a viable Palestinian state, but rather leave the PA in a twilight zone of semi-sovereignty, acting as the servile police force of the occupation.

In addition, Israel’s Palestinian citizens like Mr Odeh found that Oslo intentionally severed them from their kin in the occupied territories, culminating in a steel-and-concrete separation barrier that further fragmented the Palestinian people.

The domestic narrative about Peres excluded Israel’s Palestinian citizens no less, said Mr Odeh.

Eulogies in Hebrew extolled a Peres who armed Israeli soldiers to destroy the Palestinian homeland in the Nakba of 1948; who then oversaw two decades of internal military repression against Israel’s Palestinian minority; who built a nuclear bomb to ensure Israel could bully the entire Middle East; and who engineered the settlement project as a way to make the occupation irreversible.

These were reasons enough for not attending. But Mr Odeh expressed a more personal concern.

Given their unique position inside Israel, Palestinian citizens had connected with the “historic pain” of a long-persecuted people. But that empathy had never been reciprocated – even by Israel’s peace camp.

Mr Odeh was not referring only to the Nakba. Peres’s funeral coincided with the anniversary of events at the start of the Second Intifada when Israeli police killed 13 unarmed Palestinian demonstrators. Among them was the brother of Mr Odeh’s wife.

Although a later judicial inquiry concluded that the police had an institutional view of Israel’s Palestinian minority as an enemy, no officers were indicted. Neither was there a formal apology, even from ­Peres, who served for many years as president.

In choosing to attend the funeral, Mr Abbas doubtless had to weigh up many factors, including his international standing, diplomatic protocol and bolstering his own legacy as a peacemaker.

The major consideration for Mr Odeh, by contrast, was whether his presence might further indulge the self-delusions and moral evasions of Israel’s self-styled peace camp.

The correctness of his decision was driven home soon enough. On Tuesday, the Israeli media reported that Isaac Herzog, head of the peace bloc in parliament led by the Zionist Union, was close to a deal to join the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.

If Mr Herzog does decide to shore up a government committed to militarism and entrenching the occupation, he will be following a path well trodden by Peres himself.

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