Meet Mansour Abbas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's unlikely ally

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: The head of the United Arab List aims to change Israeli politics forever

DEPUTY KNESSET SPEAKER Mansour Abbas: I accept the democratic choices of Jewish-Israeli society, just like I ask Jewish-Israeli society to accept the choices of Arab-Israeli society. (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
DEPUTY KNESSET SPEAKER Mansour Abbas: I accept the democratic choices of Jewish-Israeli society, just like I ask Jewish-Israeli society to accept the choices of Arab-Israeli society.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas surprised no one by not making much of an effort in recent years to build their relationship.
But a different Abbas is currently surprising Israelis by adopting a new strategy of actively seeking an alliance with Netanyahu that could change Israeli politics forever.
Deputy Knesset Speaker Mansour Abbas heads Ra’am (the United Arab List), an Islamic party that has four of the 15 MKs on the Joint List. His strategy has faced both criticism and praise from other Arab MKs and all ends of the political map.
His critics on the Left say he is wrong to trust Netanyahu, who has made Arabs the enemy in his last four election campaigns and according to one critic is “acting like a preacher who does not practice what he preaches with his cynical romance with Abbas.”
“We oppose his behavior, his collaboration with the inciter,” Joint List head Ayman Odeh said.
But sources in the Joint List say that by cooperating with Abbas, Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman have laid the groundwork for future partnerships with their party that will enable governments to be formed, removing that taboo forever.
“Mansour is a professional, a unifier worthy of respect, who works hard to help his people and helps MKs set aside their differences,” Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin (Likud) said of his deputy. “This cannot be taken for granted. I am happy to help him and work with him.”
Abbas first made headlines last month, when he helped Levin quash an opposition attempt to initiate a parliamentary probe of Netanyahu’s role in the Submarine Affair. While Abbas said he followed professional guidelines and rejected political pressure in that incident, he has not left the news since.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, Abbas explained his strategy, his objectives and why they might end up being short-lived, due his own party’s bylaws.
“MOST OF the time, the Arab parties automatically are part of the Left, without considering key issues,” Abbas said. “I say this approach is mistaken and that we need to reposition ourselves toward the entire Israeli political spectrum and not one side. We are not in the pockets of the Left or the Right. We need to act within the interests of the Arab society that chose us.”
Abbas explained that his power comes from being able to have his votes sought on key issues and not be always taken for granted. He said that before making decisions on key legislation, like the state budget, the influence of each bill on Arab-Israeli society must be examined.
“We need to attempt to bargain and negotiate in order to bring about achievements for our people,” he said.
Asked if he is in favor of cooperating with every single MK, no matter what his views, Abbas said “Yes, as a matter of principle.
“The parties represent Israeli society,” he said. “I accept the democratic choices of Jewish-Israeli society, just like I ask Jewish-Israeli society to accept the choices of Arab-Israeli society.
“Before we assume stereotypical views about the other, we should try to impact the other with respectful humane discourse. We want to be active citizens, not merely stand on the side. Our desire is to be partners in the political process and decision-making.”
When asked if that meant becoming the first-ever cabinet minister to represent an Arab party, he said: “Any proposal we receive will be considered. Let’s see if such a proposal will come.”
Abbas recommended starting with integrating Arab academics in top posts in public service as directors-general and department heads, to become partners first in the senior professional level before the political level.
Netanyahu’s partnership with Abbas is making news only now, after they acted like buddies in a meeting of the Knesset Committee on Violence in the Arab Sector, which Abbas heads. But they cooperated closely on an attempt to form a coalition of 60 MKs with Abbas’s support from outside following the April 2019 election.
Abbas also was part of a deal with Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu to form a minority government backed from outside the coalition by the Joint List after the September 2019 race.
“Over the past year and a half, there were proposals to abstain on governments formed and in return receive achievements for Arab society,” he said. “Arab society suffers from plagues of crime, violence and unemployment. This got worse with corona. There is a housing crisis, with no building for young Arab couples and families. More than 100,000 live in unrecognized villages without streets, electricity and water. We want the government to initiate a plan for economic development.”
In return for helping those relatively uncontroversial requests, Abbas, unlike other Arab MKs, is willing to compromise with the Likud, even if it means considering aiding the passage of bills that could enable Netanyahu to evade prosecution.
“Those who come toward us merit mulling going toward them on their interests,” he said. “I will not be taken for granted. I want to serve the people who elected me.”
It would be easier for Abbas to do that if he were not part of the Joint List, which requires faction discipline. If the electoral threshold were to be lowered, as Likud MK Shlomo Karhi has proposed, Abbas and his allies could become more independent.
He said he wants the Joint List to continue, but conditions that on the faction “doing more than repeating slogans and protesting all the time.”
Asked if he has forgotten Netanyahu’s “Bibi or Tibi” campaign and his warning of “Arabs going to vote in droves,” Abbas said he does not call Netanyahu a racist, as other Arab MKs do.
“I have decided not to judge anyone at this time,” he said. “I speak about racism that everyone can see. I talk about widening gaps between Jews and Arabs and between Jews and Jews and solutions of equality. There are those who call the gaps a failure of the government and others who call it racism. The public can decide.”
He said there is racism against Arab society and its representatives but “hatred and incitement cross lines,” and respectful discourse is the solution.
Unlike other MKs in the opposition, who want elections as soon as possible, Abbas said it would be better to have the current Knesset last four years.
“I hope there won’t be elections,” he said. “I hope the parties realize that there are crises over the coronavirus and the economy. We need to put the people who are suffering before our own seats.”
But Abbas’s opposition to elections could be motivated by a technical rule in his party that would prevent him from seeking reelection. The rule is that MKs can serve no more than three terms, and it does not matter whether that term is four years or four months. Abbas is in his third term, even though he was first elected only 19 months ago.
“I have to respect the institutions of Ra’am, if the bylaws are not changed, even though they didn’t anticipate four elections in two years when they made the rules,” he said.
The entire Joint List voted against normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, though Abbas considered voting otherwise. Asked if the agreements with the two allies of Saudi Arabia made it more acceptable for him to cooperate with the Israeli government, Abbas said there are better reasons than deals with the UAE, Bahrain or the Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas.
“We only voted against the deals to protest that there is no peace deal with the Palestinians,” he said. “If there will be a real agreement with the Palestinians, there will be real agreements with 55 Muslim countries. But what truly matters is that we are Israelis, and our actions are not supposed to be influenced by whether there is peace with Bahrain. We are a part of Israeli society, and we want to be partners.”•