For the second time since April, Ra’am (United Arab List) Party leader Mansour Abbas has caused the jaws of critics and supporters alike to drop in near disbelief, for a similar reason. The first followed his success in the last round of Knesset elections on March 23. The second occurred at the Globes Israel Business Conference on Tuesday.
In some ways, the former was more groundbreaking. In a speech broadcast live in Hebrew on all of Israel’s TV channels, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islamist faction performed two major feats. One was to declare his intention to further the interests of his constituents through cooperation and coexistence with the Jews in the country of his citizenship. The other was to omit all mention of the Palestinians.
He delivered the address on April 1 in Nazareth, with the green banner of the Islamic Movement, not the Israeli flag, as a backdrop. But he quoted a conciliatory passage from the Koran, and announced: “I, Mansour Abbas, a man of the Islamic Movement, am a proud Arab and Muslim, a citizen of the state of Israel, who heads the leading, biggest political movement in Arab society, courageously champion a vision of peace, mutual security, partnership and tolerance between the peoples.”
His lack of customary lip service to the Palestinian struggle against the Jewish state was equally noteworthy for its novelty.
I WAS on a panel of ideologically diverse pundits during that unprecedented display. Rather than engage in heated debate when it was over, we all agreed that it was a historic event, regardless of whether it was spurred by Abbas’s newfound status as “kingmaker” – in a position to tip the coalition in favor of one prime minister or another.
Within hours, my bubble was burst, and cynics in my political camp teased me on social media for having been so naïve. A mere four days earlier, it turned out, Abbas had made very different remarks in Arabic to members of his party. Ra’am, he assured them, is acting on behalf of “Palestinian-Arab society, which survived the ‘nakba’ [the catastrophe of Israel’s establishment in 1948],” and the party’s goal is to strengthen Arab society as part of the “Islamic Arab Nation.”
Much has happened since that night. Ra’am joined the current coalition, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and scheduled for a rotation in 2023, with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at the helm. Abbas, meanwhile, has accomplished one key aim: receiving large sums of money for the Arab sector. Taking credit for the NIS 32 billion ($10 billion) allocated in the 2021 state budget, which was finally passed on November 4, he said at a press conference at the Knesset a week earlier: “There is a new agenda for Israel and Arab society. We are taking the responsibility and initiative [to] implement Ra’am’s vision.”
He said that he was changing Israeli politics and society such that from now on, it will be natural for Arab parties to be members of the government. Perhaps.
But it’s not for nothing that he had to hire private bodyguards to protect him from Arab citizens angry at him for “selling out” to the Zionists by vowing to place legislative work for his community above Islamism and Palestinian activism. Ditto regarding the Knesset Guard’s order earlier this month that he be provided with a security detail, due to threats on his life for being part of Israel’s governing coalition.
This is not to say that he’s become a Zionist or that his party is uniform in its objectives. On the contrary, Ra’am MK Mazen Ghanaim enjoyed a warm meeting on Monday with terrorist-promoter Sheikh Raed Saleh, head of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, who was recently released from prison for inciting to violence.
Nor does Abbas’s self-mainstreaming reflect Arab-Israeli attitudes as a whole, which vary greatly. The Joint (Arab) List, for instance, which has a greater number of Knesset seats than Ra’am, openly opposes Israel’s Jewish character and defends Palestinian aspirations against the Jewish state.
WHICH BRINGS us to the virtual bombshell that Abbas dropped this week in Tel Aviv at the Globes conference, titled “Israel at 100.”
In a one-on-one conversation with Channel 12 News commentator and Nas Radio director Mohammad Magadli, the Ra’am chairman asserted: “The State of Israel was born as a Jewish state. That’s the people’s decision and the question is not about the identity of the state. It was born that way and that’s how it will remain.”
Responding to Magadli’s comment that no Arab MK has ever said such a thing before, Abbas replied: “I was at a demonstration against the Nation State Law, and I don’t want to mislead anyone. The question is: ‘What is the status of an Arab citizen in the Jewish state of Israel?’ That’s the question. So the challenge now is not just for Mansour Abbas, but for the Jewish public and the Jewish citizen.”
He continued: “We [Arabs] have to decide whether we want to engage in campaigns that have a chance of succeeding – and then we’ll be able to develop as a society and prosper, and be an influential sector of society – or whether we want to be in an isolationist position and continue to talk about all these things for another 100 years.”
Even after being attacked by Arab Israelis and Palestinians across the spectrum, Abbas – who last month told the Nazareth-based Kul al-Arab newspaper and news site, “whether we like it or not, Israel is a Jewish state, and my central goal is to define the status of the country’s Arab citizens” – refused to retract. In fact, he doubled down.
In a lengthy post on Facebook, he reiterated what he had said at the conference, writing that Arabs need to distinguish between “desires and reality,” and not be fooled by the slogan “a state for all its citizens,” which is “employed to exploit people’s emotions without telling them that they’re talking about the state of Israel.”
The fact is, he emphasized, “legally and demographically, the State of Israel is a Jewish state.”
These words, from an Islamist party leader, are significant in and of themselves. That he uttered them unapologetically, publicly and in Arabic makes him not only courageous, but credible.
The hope is that his voters won’t be the only Arab Israelis weary of leaders championing the Palestinians while abandoning their own towns to gang wars and gun violence. It remains to be seen whether backers of Arab legislators, who use their seats in the Knesset to undermine the state, will undergo a shift in perception. Indeed, time will tell if he’s an actual trend-setter.
Though he deserves kudos for breaking with the longstanding tradition of his peers in the Knesset, let’s keep in mind that he’s a politician with an agenda beyond the one he touted in his election campaign. As is the case with his fellow coalition partners, it’s his unspoken ambitions that may reveal themselves as less than admirable.