After 73 years, Israel's Arabs become movers in the political process

The shape of the next government remains a riddle, and chances are that the politicians will yet again fail to produce one. Even so, Abbas has become part of the game.

UNITED ARAB LIST leader Mansour Abbas addresses the Knesset earlier this week. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
UNITED ARAB LIST leader Mansour Abbas addresses the Knesset earlier this week.
 The conquest of Eilat, which marked the end of the War of Independence, was 24 hours away when one of the first Knesset’s three Arab lawmakers stepped up to the podium and gave this take on the previous 16 months’ violence: 
“The establishment of the state of Israel, and its resistance of imperialistic intrigues and intervention, were enabled by the resistance of the masses in Israel and by their war for independence and liberty, and by the multi-sided support that these warriors received from the democratic forces in the world.” 
Moreover, with most of the Palestinian refugees’ departures less than a year old, and despite being himself a native and resident of Haifa’s newly depopulated Arab section, the Arab legislator blamed the tragedy not on the Jews, but on their enemies:
“Imperialism’s attack through its agents – the reactionary Arab rulers – in order to prevent Israel’s establishment, were also aimed against the Arab peoples’ interests… Imperialism managed to deliver the Arab people a calamity that history only rarely sees, [but] it did not manage to destroy the state of Israel, and this is victory for all forces of freedom and democracy in the Middle East.”
The speaker was Tawfik Toubi, whose 41-year legislative career would be second in its length only to Shimon Peres’s. Toubi’s statement that day was sincere, the harbinger of a complex public career that would be underscored by his consistent justification of Israel’s right to exist and by his repeated insistence that the Palestinian should have endorsed the UN’s Partition Resolution. 
A proud Arab who made a point of addressing the Knesset in Arabic despite mastering Hebrew, Toubi challenged not only Arab convention but also Israeli authority, most memorably when he read from the Knesset podium testimonies of Israeli Arabs who survived the 1956 Kafr Qasm Massacre in which dozens of Arab villagers were killed. 
However, as a representative of Maki – Hebrew acronym for Israeli Communist Party – Toubi was part of an apparatus that received orders not from its voters, but from its puppeteers in Moscow. That meant recognition of Israel and at the same time harsh opposition to its policies, which Toubi rebuked as representing Western interests and ideas. 
It was an emblem of an era in Arab-Israeli history, the era of servility, which lasted until the 1990s, when religious and nationalist radicals created new parties which inspired an era of political defiance. 
Now both legacies are challenged by a new configuration’s gospel, which promises a third era, an era of pragmatism, as promised by the new Knesset’s smallest party, and biggest surprise. 
DURING THE era of servility, Arab-Israeli politicians were part of someone else’s design. 
The intentions were good, and the results were not necessarily bad. In the Communist Party, for instance, there really was a measure of Arab-Jewish harmony, including some 16 years in which Toubi’s party leader was Moshe Sneh, the former head of the Hagana. 
More importantly, the ruling establishment deployed Arab politicians, whether as representatives of its own parties or through satellite parties that orbited the ruling Labor Party. 
That is how an Israeli Arab, Abdel Aziz Zoabi, became deputy minister of health in Golda Meir’s government in 1971, and the first Arab citizen to attend Israel’s cabinet sessions. Zoabi represented Mapam, which was part of Meir’s Labor Alignment, but the previous decade there were parties with names like Progress and Development, or Cooperation and Brotherhood, which ran independently and won two seats each. 
The common denominator among all those configurations was that they answered to external patrons, whether non-Arabs, like Labor’s Jewish leaders, or non-Israelis, like the Kremlin’s communist bosses. 
It was an anomaly that lasted until the Soviet Union’s collapse and the outbreak of the first Intifada. The USSR’s disappearance made many Arab voters reconsider their traditional support of the Communist Party, and the Intifada made many Israeli Arabs seek an independent political voice. This was the backdrop against which gynecologist Ahmed Tibi established in 1990 Ta’al, the Arabic acronym for Arab Renewal Movement, and philosopher Azmi Bishara founded Balad (Progressive List for Peace) in 1995. 
Both men and their parties spoke vocally against the idea of a Jewish state, demanding instead that Israel become “a state of all its citizens,” and as such abolish the Law of Return which grants Jews automatic citizenship, and also demanded the replacement of the national anthem, because it expresses the Jewish yearning for the Land of Israel and Jerusalem. 
While Tibi was careful not to break the law, his rivals did, reflecting Israeli Arab politicians’ urge to impress their voters with anti-Israeli bravados. In Azmi Bishara’s case this resulted in collaboration with Hezbollah, the loss of his parliamentary immunity, and his flight from the country in 2007. 
In the case of another representative of Balad, environmental engineer Basel Ghattas, the same radical nationalism resulted in a jail term, after he was caught smuggling cell phones to jailed terrorists. A third member of the same faction, Hanin Zouabi, was attacked even by the Left after she joined the Turkish flotilla that provoked a clash with the IDF in 2010. 
Such provocations were extreme examples, but they were part of an era when Arab lawmakers focused on defying and also confronting the Israeli establishment. 
Yes, there were some exceptions. The second Rabin government was backed by the five members of those days’ two Arab factions. However, they did not join the government, and mostly focused on the Palestinian problem. 
Another exception was the 2007 appointment of Raleb Majadele as science and culture minister in Ehud Olmert’s government. However, Majadele represented Labor, and his tenure was therefore a throwback to the era when Israeli Arabs were represented through intermediaries. 
Now this history seems to make way for a new era, one that will combine the departing era’s independence with the earlier era’s pragmatism.
MANSOUR ABBAS, leader of the United Arab List (Ra’am), stunned his colleagues in the Joint List with his decision before the recent election to bolt the confederation Arab-led parties. “If I get from Netanyahu budgets and legislations, why shouldn’t I give him what needs to be given in return?” he told Channel 12 shortly before bolting the Joint List. From the viewpoint of his former colleagues, this was heresy. From the viewpoint of the media, it was a thunderbolt. 
The previous assumption was that, as an Islamist, Abbas was committed to the previous agenda, and to his 25-year-old party’s stated opposition to the Zionist idea. Indeed, his party’s founder, Abd el-Malek Dahamsha, did jail time back in the 1970’s for enlisting Arab-Israelis to wage terror attacks on Israelis for al-Fatah. 
Abbas has decided to part with that legacy, stating publicly that only rightwing governments can make peace, and leftwing government brought wars. He thus split away and ran on this pragmatic ticket, which won 40 percent of the electorate that previously went to the Joint List. 
A Hebrew University-trained dentist, the 46-year-old Abbas intends to use his Knesset seats not to critique Israeli governments’ delivery, but to help shape it, so he can fight for housing, education, infrastructure and street safety in crime infested Arab towns. 
Alongside his redefined agenda, and the legitimation he gave to joining right-wing coalitions, lurks a relationship he created with Netanyahu’s circle, especially Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin. That is why many assumed Abbas was in Netanyahu’s pocket. 
The assumption was apparently shared by Netanyahu himself. But then came a Knesset plenary vote on the establishment of the committee that would form the new legislature’s interim committees, and Abbas surprised again – this time by joining Netanyahu’s opponents. 
Though this has not been confirmed by either party, pundits believe Abbas obtained from Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid solid promises in turn for joining the broad government he is trying to form with Naftali Bennett, Gideon Sa’ar, and the rest of the anti-Netanyahu parties. 
Abbas may have thus brought Netanyahu’s illustrious political career to the beginning of its end. Though he has actually not closed the door on Netanyahu, he has already positioned himself as kingmaker, a role no Israeli Arab politician ever played. 
At this writing, the shape of the next government remains a riddle, and chances are that the politicians will yet again fail to produce one. Even so, Abbas has become part of the game. One way or another, he can be expected to become part of the next Israeli coalition. 
Yes, technically this already happened 50 years ago, when Golda Meir appointed an Arab deputy minister; and yes, the pragmatic Abbas embodies trend was heralded already in 2019, when Joint List leader Ayman Odeh decided to recommend a prime ministerial candidate (Benny Gantz), a move the Arab parties had previously avoided. 
Just what budgets and positions Abbas and his colleagues will get in a new government remains to be seen, but whatever those will be, he has already produced what no Arab-Israeli politician produced in Israel’s 73 years: relevance. ■