The head of the first major Arab party to enter a government coalition said Tuesday that Israel’s status as a Jewish state could not be changed, advising the Arab community to follow his pragmatic approach rather than trying to challenge the country’s identity.
Mansour Abbas’s comments during a conference held by the Globes newsmagazine in Tel Aviv tracked closely with his attempts to raise his community’s profile by working from within the government, a strategy that some fellow Arab politicians have criticized as selling out the Palestinian national cause.
“Israel was born as a Jewish state. And that was the decision of the Jewish people, to establish a Jewish state. The question is not ‘what is the identity of the state?’ That’s how the state was born, and so it will remain,” said Abbas, the head of the Islamist Ra’am party.
Arab Israelis have struggled for decades with their identity as a national minority inside the avowedly Jewish state. Some identify as Palestinian, others as Arab Israeli, and still others simply as Arab or Bedouin.
Abbas told the audience that he had protested the 2017 Nation-State law, which enshrined the state’s Jewish identity in legislation. But he also told them “not to give ourselves illusions.”
“This is the reality. The question is not the about the state’s identity — but what the status of Arab citizens will be in it,” Abbas said.
Abbas’s Ra’am party is the first Arab Israeli party to join an Israeli coalition government in decades. Since becoming part of the coalition in June, Ra’am has sought to advance policies that benefit Arab Israelis while keeping the fragile government together.
During the March election campaign, Abbas pledged tangible results for his voters, saying that his party offered a “realistic” approach to solving everyday problems in Arab communities, from rising crime to a severe housing shortage.
Abbas’s critics say forgoing discussion of Palestinian identity will not help bring achievements for Arab Israelis in what is fundamentally a national conflict.
“The question of the status of the Palestinian minority in Israel is fundamentally tied to the definition of the state as a Jewish state,” said MK Sami Abou Shehadeh, who represents the nationalist Balad faction of the Joint List party in the Knesset, in response to Abbas’s remarks on Tuesday.
Ayman Odeh, who leads the Joint List, a bloc of four mostly Arab parties, slammed Abbas’ remarks as well, saying that “the question of the state’s identity should interest every citizen — Arab or Jew — who cares about peace and democracy.”
“We are not subjects, we are the children of this homeland, citizens by right, and we will continue to work for a state of equality and democracy,” said Odeh.
Abbas has made similar statements in recent weeks to Arabic-language media, encouraging Arab Israelis to accept the Jewish nature of the state as a fact on the ground.
“Israel is a Jewish state. That is its identity, its essence. From their perspective, if its Jewish nature is taken away, the state will have vanished as well. Whether you accept it or not — that is a personal matter,” Abbas said during an interview with the Arabic-language publication Kul al-Arab in November.
“The essential question for us as Arabs is what our status is in this country. Period. Next page,” Abbas said. He also suggested avoiding what he deemed “lost battles.”
The stance is rooted in the Ra’am party charter, which advocates using Arab citizenship and political participation in Israeli state institutions as a practical tool to advance the status of Arab Israelis.
“I see myself as a full citizen of the State of Israel, and I want my full rights. What’s the difference between me and [other Arab Israeli politicians]? I am utilizing my citizenship,” Abbas said to Kul al-Arab.
But during his November interview, Abbas was careful to add that he had not forgotten his Palestinian identity, either.
“My rights don’t just come from my citizenship. My rights also come from being a member of the Palestinian people, a son of this Palestinian homeland. And whether we like it or not, the State of Israel, with its identity, was established inside the Palestinian homeland,” Abbas said.