Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, an alliance of four small Arab-backed parties, reacts to exit poll figures at his party's headquarters in the city of Nazareth on March 17, 2015
Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, an alliance of four small Arab-backed parties, reacts to exit poll figures at his party's headquarters in the city of Nazareth on March 17, 2015 © Ahmad Gharabli - AFP/File
Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, an alliance of four small Arab-backed parties, reacts to exit poll figures at his party's headquarters in the city of Nazareth on March 17, 2015
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Majeda El-Batsh, AFP
Last updated: March 19, 2015

Ayman Odeh, leading Arabs to success in Israeli Knesset

As the man who took the Arab Israeli parties to their single biggest election win of 13 seats, Ayman Odeh dreams of a bigger political future for his community.

The 40-year-old lawyer on Tuesday won his first parliamentary seat at the head of the Arab Joint List -- a bloc formed in response to a new Israeli law that upped the electoral threshold.

Before becoming the head of what has now become the third-largest alliance in the Knesset, Odeh told AFP he felt the weight of "great responsibility" on his shoulders since he represents the Arab Israeli community that makes up 20 percent of Israel's population.

Odeh's first symbolic act as parliamentarian will be to walk from the Negev desert in the south -- where he has long campaigned for the rights of Bedouin Arabs -- to the parliament in Jerusalem, a distance of more than 60 miles (100 kilometres).

The longtime activist has campaigned for minority rights in Israel, and sworn to stand up to a rightwing government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party sailed to victory with 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

On election day, Netanyahu issued a panicked call urging rightwingers to get out and vote, saying: "Arab voters are coming out in droves."

Odeh warned in an interview on public radio: "If the democratic camp weakens, fascism will begin to take victims, and the first will be the Arabs."

He does not play sectarian politics, however.

For Odeh, the only way that Arab rights can be preserved in the face of "fascism and racism" is with the backing of the country's Jewish majority.

- 'Partners, not enemies' -

"We will be an alternative camp, the democratic camp – where Arabs and Jews are equal partners, not enemies," he told Britain's Guardian newspaper.

Odeh is a member of Israel's Arab minority who number more than 1.3 million -- the descendents of Palestinians who stayed on their land when the state of Israel was established in 1948.

Since 2006, he has been the Secretary General of Hadash, a predominantly communist party which comprises Jewish and Arab MPs, and is now one of the four parties in the Joint List.

His dream is to reach a place where he can ensure a "better future" for his constituents who have complained for years of being treated as second class citizens in the Jewish state.

The son of a mason from the northern port city of Haifa, which has a mixed Arab-Jewish population, Odeh became politically active during high school where he headed the student council.

He was repeatedly arrested on account of his protest activities, coming to the attention of the Shin Bet Israeli internal security agency at an early age, he says.

To critics who equate his youth with inexperience, Odeh refers to his years of political activism.

"Yes, I'm the youngest candidate on the list, but I began my activities in the 1990s," he told AFP.

- Strong conviction -

Growing up, his political outlook was moulded by current events: the growth of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 1987.

"At home, we talked of nothing but these events and they filled the press and forged my convictions," he said.

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 fought to preserve the ethnic identity of the city's Arab neighbourhoods, getting many streets with Hebrew names renamed in Arabic.

But his struggle has not been easy.

In 2001, shortly after the outbreak of the second intifada, his wife Nardin Asleh lost her 17-year-old brother who was shot dead in a clash with Israeli police.

And he is known for his persistence and determination to fight for Arab causes.

In 2009 after Israel refused to recognise some 40 Bedouin Arab villages in the Negev desert, this father-of-three camped out for a month with the Bedouins to better understand their grievances.

And as a fierce debate raged over compulsory military service for Druze youth in 2006, he toured the country encouraging them to refuse. The issue has been revived involving Arab Christians.

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