Alex Odeh, the Palestinian Question, and an Unsolved Terror Bombing in Santa Ana

By Gabriel San Román

 

 

In the sole bound copy of Alex Odeh’s Cal State Fullerton master’s thesis from 1978, an unofficial epilogue appears out of place. Five pages in, yellowed tape frames a New York Times news brief from June 8, 1991, about an Israeli court authorizing the extradition of dual citizen Robert Manning to the United States to stand trial for a 1980 mail bomb murder.

 

Manning was a former member of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), a militant group founded in the late 1960s by Rabbi Meir Kahane. He was also described as a “suspect” in the 1985 Santa Ana office bombing that killed Odeh. Who pasted the news brief, fastened under Odeh’s thesis committee acknowledgments, is unknown.

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A sharp spokesperson, Odeh served as West Coast Regional Director of the American-Arab Anti-

Discrimination Committee (ADC) before his untimely death. He kept newspapers accountable in their

coverage of the Middle East while taking interviews on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The night before

the blast, Odeh gave an interview to KABC-TV on the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise

ship. It would be his last. More than thirty years after the New York Times news brief Manning remains in

federal prison for the first deadly bombing but has never been charged in the still unsolved Santa Ana

slaying—nor has anyone else.

 

The enduring injustice of Odeh’s cold case provides an inescapable context for apprehending his early scholarly work, sweepingly titled “United States Policy toward the Palestinians in the Overall Context of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” The Palestinian push for statehood and its international entanglements became fatefully intertwined with Odeh’s own life and death. Before opening his office door and triggering a pipe bomb on the morning of October 11, Odeh immersed himself in Middle Eastern politics earlier in life as a student, first at the University of Cairo and then in Orange County.

During the 1967 war, when Israel defeated Arab armies and militarily occupied vast swaths of territory, Odeh continued his studies in Cairo. Unable to return to his beloved village of Jifna in the West Bank,

Odeh joined family in Amman, Jordan. Without a future in his homeland under Israeli military

occupation, he accepted his sister’s invitation to join her in the U.S. Odeh later enrolled at Cal State

Fullerton to pursue a master’s in political science.

 

His thesis, completed in summer ’78, foreshadowed a commitment to tell the Palestinian story to the U.S. public. He dedicated his study to Palestinians living in refugee camps “whose suffering and empathy have created the need to be aware.”

While Odeh was seen by many as a voice of moderation, he did not shy from naming what he saw as the core of the conflict: Zionism. “This, of course, is not to say that Zionism has been the only force responsible, or that it has acted alone,” he wrote. “There were other forces that helped the Zionist movement in its attempts to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine.”

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From the backdoor dealings of the British imperial mandate to the fumbling United Nations partition plain 1947, the stage was set for Zionist militias to conquer Palestinian land, which sparked the military intervention of neighboring Arab states—this ignited a broader conflict in the region that continues today. Odeh argued that Middle East peace was impossible without a Palestinian state and that the U.S., through its foreign policy, could bring it to realization. This was a fringe argument in the U.S. at the time but would later become the American position fifteen years later.

 

Odeh drew on history to stake that claim. Prior to Israeli statehood, he noted that U.S. foreign policy backed the Zionist movement. Afterward, such support morphed into “financial, moral and legal” backing of the new regime. Once Palestinians took up arms after the defeat of Arab states in the 1967 war, Washington actively combated the independence movement and its international appeals through “total confrontation” in order to bring about its military and political defeat.

 

During Johnson’s presidency, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) emerged as the leading political force for the fragmented, stateless people. Though the PLO was initially suspected of being the political tool of Arab states, it became widely accepted as the sole representative of the Palestinian people, save for two key players in the Middle East. Odeh attributed to the U.S. and Israel an “uncompromising dissent from the new international consensus on Palestine and firm opposition to the world-wide recognition of the PLO.” Only with the arrival of the Carter administration did a Palestinian homeland factor into U.S. policy as an objective. PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s call for a Palestinian state became more difficult to ignore. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s peace overtures with Israel provided the opening for a shift in Carter’s thinking.

 

Sadat visited Israel and addressed the Knesset during the Jerusalem Summit of 1977. The occasion marked the first time an Arab head of state had arrived in Israel since its creation. Every step forward met resistance, however. Another summit that followed in Egypt with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin deadlocked on the Palestinian Question around the core issues of self-determination of Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as Israeli settlement-building.

 

Odeh saw a moment of potential impasse where U.S. policy may have been able to move things forward. He summed up the prospects for peace in advocating for Palestinian statehood. Paving a path forward entailed a mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO by each other along with a suspension of violence. Washington would have to pressure Israel to relinquish all territories taken after the 1967 war.

 

His argument rested on a pragmatic premise. “The Palestinian people have refused to die, disintegrate, or

melt into other peoples—even other Arab peoples—and lose their identity,” he wrote. “Decades of struggle and crippling losses of life and property have failed to weaken their resolve to have a normal life, to enjoy equal rights, and to exercise self-determination in their homeland.”

Odeh did not live to see the culmination of this policy change he sought. He likely would have cheered on September 11, 1993, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. President Bill Clinton, and Arafat signed the Oslo Accords in the White House Rose Garden. Decades of disappointment followed. How an elderly Odeh would have seen this failure will never be known.

 

After graduating, Odeh became an ADC organizer and spokesman who advocated for a two-state solution. His insistence on recognition of and negotiation with the PLO as a prerequisite for peace in press interviews caught the ire of the JDL.

On a KPFK-LA 90.7 FM radio program, “Middle East in Focus,” Odeh insisted that the PLO was the true representative of the Palestinian people. “One way to reach peace with the Palestinians is through

negotiations with their leadership,” he said. Irv Rubin, a then-JDL leader, had that interview in mind when he stated, “I have no tears over a guy who loved Arafat, who said any Arab who talks peace with an Israeli is a collaborator.”

 

A year before his murder, the Los Angeles Times published a letter to the editor by Odeh where he called Israeli settlements “a cruel form of colonialist expansion” and warned that moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel would send a clear signal of support. Decades later, under President Donald Trump, the U.S. made this exact move. Settlements continue to encroach on the West Bank and have rendered a two- state solution all but unviable.

President Joe Biden pledged support for a two-state solution during his recent trip to the region but bluntly stated that the “ground is not ripe” for a renewed peace process. He refrained from criticizing sprawling Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

 

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Odeh wrote his own experiences out of his prophetic thesis and never once mentioned how he wasn’t allowed to return to Jifna following the 1967 war. Odeh kept his treatment purely academic. It took an unknown person to bind the two through the news clipping epilogue.

As it suggested, Odeh’s fate and the cause of Palestinian statehood continue to be intertwined. His unsolved assassination provoked Haaretz to recently ask whether an U.S.-Israel alliance is an obstacle to justice in the case. The bias of U.S. foreign policy that Odeh discussed in his thesis decades ago may continue to be the stumbling block that keeps his murder from being solved.

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Gabriel San Román is a feature writer for TimesOC, a publication of the Los Angeles Times. He previously worked at OC Weekly – as a reporter, podcast producer and columnist – until the newspaper’s closing in late 2019. San Román just may be the tallest Mexican in O.C.