In Israel’s fraught and fractured political climate, there’s no telling how Mansour Abbas’s remarkable speech Thursday night will impact the current struggle between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps to build a governing coalition after last week’s deadlocked elections.
But the Ra’am leader’s brief address was a landmark political event, nonetheless — and, most unusually, a positive one. One might be tempted to call it potentially momentous, were it not for the fact that it was delivered in this fevered post-election, pre-coalition period: It was a high-minded, courageous, declaredly non-partisan speech, but also one constructed to advance immediate political aspirations.
The head of the conservative Islamic party insisted he had no desire to play “kingmaker,” and was not going to attach himself to either of the competing political blocs. Rather, he presented himself as a peacemaker — a peacemaker within Israel, that is, championing a more tolerant society, more harmonious, more aware that the success of one sector contributes to the success of all and that the sidelining of the Arab sector he represents harms all of Israel.
“If the road in Wadi Ara” — a largely Arab-populated area in northern Israel — “is problematic, it doesn’t care if the person using it is an Arab or a Jew,” he said in one of the most evocative passages of his address. “If beds are short at [Beersheba’s] Soroka Hospital, that spells harm for patients from Beersheba or [the nearby Bedouin town of] Rahat. If there is crime and extortion, it doesn’t exclude this or that business because of [the language on] the store sign. If my neighbor goes hungry, I and my family are in danger. And if I don’t live in peace within the state, I won’t be able to seek peace with my neighbors.”
Abbas was explicit that his direct goal and specific obligation as the head of his newly elected four-member Knesset party was to champion the interests of the Arab sector — Israel’s tolerated but oft-marginalized minority, the descendants of those who did not flee and were not forced out when the nascent Jewish state was fighting off surrounding Arab armies in the 1948 War of Independence. “I represent 20% of the [Israeli] public who are dealing with all manner of problems — from the absence of personal security, and the lack of a roof over their heads, all the way to the lack of personal and collective fulfillment,” he said. And after decades in which the needs of Israeli Arabs had gone unmet, he said, he would seek to ensure they were finally addressed.
But his ambitions, he said, were wider, higher; for the nation as a whole: “This is the time to find the common ground, to create a different reality for all the citizens of the state.”
Ra’am, which split off from the Arab-dominated Joint List in these elections, makes no remote claim to be a Zionist party. It is the political wing of the (more conciliatory) Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement, dedicated to the interests of Islam and its adherents in the majority Jewish state. The former Ra’am MK Ibrahim Sarsur has compared Israeli military actions in Gaza to those of the Nazis, urged the liberation of Jerusalem from Israeli control, and taken public positions empathetic to Hamas.
But Abbas has changed Ra’am’s stance, flirting with Netanyahu’s Likud (before being rejected by the prime minister before the elections), arguing that Arab parties being endlessly consigned to the political opposition does their constituents no favors. Such pragmatism comes at a price: In splintering the Joint List, Abbas provoked fury from the three other Arab parties; choosing not to rule out some kind of partnership with Netanyahu, he has faced death threats.
Abbas said in his speech that he represents Israel’s Arabs as the head of the sector’s biggest movement, but that formulation disguises the fact that Ra’am only won 167,000 votes and four seats; the Joint List won 212,000 and six. (When all four parties ran together in last year’s elections, they won 580,000 votes and a hefty 15 Knesset seats.) He said he was speaking on behalf of Israel’s Arab community, but he directly represents only a minority.
Arab, Muslim, citizen of Israel
In his address, delivered from a hotel in the northern city of Nazareth, Abbas said nothing that would justify Netanyahu’s branding of him, in an interview before the elections, as an anti-Zionist, and much that would have been music to Netanyahu’s ears if the prime minister now seeks to persuade others on the right to let him rely on Ra’am for a coalition majority.
He carefully described himself as “a man of the Islamic Movement, a proud Arab and Muslim, a citizen of the state of Israel.” Though deeply engaged in the Palestinian issue, that is, he chose not to call himself a Palestinian, or a Palestinian-Israeli; indeed, the word Palestinian did not cross his lips at all.
No sooner was it over than those mainstream TV channels were analyzing his speech for its potential partisan political repercussions — unsurprisingly so, given that Abbas, along with the right-wing Yamina party of Naftali Bennett, does indeed hold the balance of power between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs.
But however the battle for national leadership in Israel’s riven political system now plays out, Mansour Abbas has already achieved something unprecedented for an Israeli Arab leader. He has maneuvered himself to the very center of Israel’s political stage and, with the nation hanging on his every word on Thursday, he seized the moment to deliver a dramatic call for coexistence.
“I… champion a vision of peace, mutual security, partnership and tolerance between the peoples,” he declared. “The time has come for us to listen to each other, to respect each other’s narrative, to respect the other.”
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