One tedious aspect of Israeli politics is that the politicians are so predictable.
You know that when Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks he is going to ignore the Palestinians; that when opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu gets in front of a microphone he is going to skewer Bennett; that the haredi politicians are going to blast the kashrut reform; that Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman is going to slam the haredi politicians; and that Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg will wiggle out of condemning Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh’s libelous comments about Israel at the Glasgow Climate Change conference that the Meretz politician attended.
It’s as if everyone is reading from a well-worn script.
Except for Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas. You never quite know what he is going to do, whom he is going to join forces with, or what he is going to say – which makes him among the most refreshing figures on the Israeli political scene today.
Abbas, who scrambled the political deck earlier this year by bolting from the Arab Joint List and ran Ra’am as an independent party, surprised everyone by displaying a willingness to be a part of any government in order to have an impact and get badly needed funds for the country’s Arab sector.
Following the elections in March, he delivered a watershed speech in Nazareth declaring a willingness to work with all parts of the Israeli political spectrum.
What made that speech so different and noteworthy was that he did not stick to the predictable script. He didn’t slam Israel – as other Arab MKs do reflexively – for racism, oppression, “apartheid” and the “occupation.” Instead, his message was one of conciliation, of working together so everyone benefits.
And he surprised even more when he signed the coalition agreement in June, marking the first time that an Arab party would be a part of the Jewish state’s governing coalition. And not just any Arab party, but an Islamist party at that.
Abbas surprised again this week when he pledged to United Torah Judaism’s Moshe Gafni to move NIS 100 million of the billions the Arab sector is slated to get in the new budget to the haredi parties to assist their communities. That’s right, Abbas is taking money earmarked for the Arab sector and passing it on to the ultra-Orthodox.
In Abbas’s telling, he was moved by a speech Gafni gave in the Knesset saying that this country will never accept those not in the mainstream – neither the Arabs nor haredim – and that the country’s “weaker” elements need to stick together.
Others say it was nothing but a shrewd political move. Abbas likes life in the governing coalition – any governing coalition – so when this government ceases to exist, possibly to be replaced by a right-wing Likud-led government, he wants to ensure that he has allies on the Right who can help him join that coalition as well.
Either way, something is refreshing and even magnanimous about the gesture, something sorely lacking these days when it often seems as if the opposition and coalition parties view one another as mortal enemies.
The gesture did not prove contagious, however.
No sooner did Abbas make the offer, that Religious Zionist Party head Bezalel Smotrich urged the haredi parties – his allies in the opposition – to turn it down, saying it is all part of a nefarious Muslim plan to present themselves as the patrons of the Jews.
And former finance minister Israel Katz (Likud) responded by saying during a Kan Bet interview that Abbas is to the Islamic Movement in Israel what Ismail Haniyeh is to Hamas, thereby trying to link Abbas and Ra’am in the minds of the listeners to Hamas and terror.
When Katz was then asked, if that was indeed the case, why Netanyahu tried to woo that same Abbas into a government he hoped to form earlier in the year, Katz hemmed and hawed and had no real answer.
Here was a senior Likud official blasting Abbas and trying to delegitimize him and his party, when just a few months ago his own party’s head was trying to lure that same leader and party into his coalition. As unpredictable as Abbas is, this was the exact opposite: unabashed cynicism and hypocrisy that was completely unsurprising.