Avigdor Liberman and Mansour Abbas - strange bedfellows? - opinion

Amid the government drama, the lack of tension in the relationship between Finance Minister Liberman and MK Mansour Abbas has been astounding.

 WITHOUT ABBAS, Naftali Bennett would not have become prime minister. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI)
WITHOUT ABBAS, Naftali Bennett would not have become prime minister.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI)

The inbuilt volatility of Israel’s ideologically heterogeneous, eight-party ruling coalition was patently demonstrated this week by the surprise resignation of coalition chair MK Idit Silman. But amid all the coalition’s political chasms, the lack of tension in the relationship between Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman and MK Mansour Abbas has been astounding - the former with a reputation for anti-Arab xenophobia, the latter leading the Islamist Ra’am party.

Even the recent terrorist attacks by Israeli Arabs against Israeli Jews failed to disrupt the Liberman-Abbas ambience: Abbas was unequivocal in his condemnation of the deadly violence; Liberman conspicuous in his restraint.

The paradox is that the finance minister has never been renowned for temperateness. A 2016 piece devoted to Liberman in the British Guardian newspaper described the then-incoming defense minister as an “ultranationalist” and “one of Israel’s most outspokenly hawkish and divisive political figures” who pushed “legislative proposals that critics said were discriminatory against Israel’s Arab minority” including “the transfer of Israeli Arabs into the Palestinian territories.”

And indeed, Israel’s Arab political leadership found Liberman’s “transfer” plan particularly egregious, claiming it was designed to deny Arabs the democratic rights they enjoy as Israelis. Arab Joint List leader, MK Ayman Odeh, described the proposal as “a green light to revoke the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arab citizens.”

Although portrayed by critics as “racist” and “ethnic cleansing,” Liberman’s proposal is deserving of more nuanced evaluation. Unlike the population transfers in Europe that followed the Second World War where millions were uprooted, Poles from the Soviet Union, Germans from Poland, Germans from Czechoslovakia, and more, Liberman was not advocating that anyone be forced to leave their homes. Rather, his plan proposed territorial exchanges consistent with a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman attends a cabinet meeting, March 20, 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman attends a cabinet meeting, March 20, 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

For years, discussions about a possible two-state solution included the possibility of land swaps, the assumption being that any realistic deal necessitated Israel retaining Jewish population centers in the West Bank, with Palestinians receiving in return territorial compensation from Israel (the exact ratio of the redress itself an issue).

It was often assumed that Israel would be handing the Palestinians largely uninhabited tracts of land in the Negev desert near Gaza and the Egyptian border. Liberman’s innovation was to suggest that territorial swaps enhance the concept of “two states for two peoples” by including populated areas in the exchange. Just as Jewish settlements proximate to the Green Line could be annexed into Israel, Liberman suggested that Israeli Arab communities next to the former frontier could become part of a future Palestinian state.

Many have doubted the realism and viability of the Liberman plan (although it did receive qualified support from the previous American administration). Practicalities aside, Liberman’s proposal creates an immense conceptual challenge for those in the Israeli Arab political elite who have embraced Palestinian nationalist ideology.

For these Palestinian patriots, Israeli Arabs are the legitimate indigenous inhabitants of the country who have been forced to endure a succession of foreign rulers: Ottoman, British and now Israeli. In their worldview, the latter reality is particularly deplorable, as not only have Israeli Arabs become a minority in their own land, but the Israeli state is perceived as imposing a system of institutionalized discrimination.

Naturally, one would think that those who proudly self-identify as Palestinians, and who consider Israel innately prejudiced, would have no objection to having the communities in which they live cease being subject to Israeli jurisdiction and become part of an independent Palestine.

But it is not so. Those Israeli Arabs who embrace Palestinian consciousness remain opposed to renouncing the citizenship of a country that at best, they feel alienated from, and at worst, resent and deride, rejecting the idea of expanding a Palestinian state into areas inside Israel so that the local population can be absorbed into a nation-state better reflecting their self-professed national identity.

This enigma can be explained thus: No matter how estranged they feel from Israel, even Palestinian identifying Israeli Arabs can still appreciate that they are citizens of a successful, first-world, pluralist democracy with a Western standard of living and social services. Israeli Arabs know full well that the Arab world is plagued by failed states and don’t want to live in one. They can appreciate what Israel gets right and, understandably, have little desire to exchange citizenship of the Jewish state for that of a poorer and authoritarian Palestinian alternative.

This makes MK Mansour Abbas so interesting. He has declared his acceptance of the Jewish state but wants to make the Israeli system work better for Israeli Arabs.

The Ra’am leader is no subservient Jewish puppet. On the contrary, he is a bona fide political Islamist whom Israeli right-wingers have accused of being in league with Hamas.

Yet, precisely because of Abbas’s indisputable independent Arab-Muslim credentials, he doesn’t carry the burden of Zionist collaboration, giving him the legitimacy within his own base to work inside the Israeli political system in a way in which none of his predecessors did.

Israel’s voting system of proportional representation automatically produces coalition governments, and this has worked to the advantage of the different sectors. Over the decades, the national-religious and the ultra-Orthodox have skillfully used their parliamentary strength to safeguard their interests, ensuring the channeling of state resources to their communities and advancing legislation conforming to their agenda.

But unlike the national-religious and ultra-Orthodox, Israel’s Arab parties historically took a decision to make themselves politically irrelevant by voluntarily opting out.

Despite impressive levels of representation, the Arab Joint List (then including Ra’am) receiving 15 seats in the elections of 2020 and becoming the Knesset’s third-largest faction, Arab parliamentarians largely devoted their time to the politics of protest, on endless successful opposition speeches.

In the present Knesset, Abbas’s Ra’am might have only four seats, but they were an indispensable prerequisite for the creation of the current coalition government. Without Abbas, Naftali Bennett would not have become prime minister and Yair Lapid would not have a signed agreement on his subsequent entrance into the number one spot.

In this political reality, Abbas has been uniquely positioned to advance the interests of Israel’s Arabs as he understands them. Abbas has undoubtedly empowered his community as never before, perhaps becoming the most influential Arab politician in the 74-year history of the Jewish state.

Ironically, the supposedly ultranationalist and divisive MK Avigdor Liberman has been, if not a genuine partner, at least an enabler of Abbas’s Arab political revolution.

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is a senior visiting fellow at the INSS at Tel Aviv University. Follow him at @MarkRegev on Twitter.