Mansour Abbas: Arab-Jewish political cooperation should be an end, not a means

Ra’am leader says party’s religious character integral, but denies equivalence between the southern branch of Islamic Movement and Muslim Brotherhood

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Ra'am party leader MK Mansour Abbas speaks during a conference at Reichman University in Herzliya, May 17, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Ra'am party leader MK Mansour Abbas speaks during a conference at Reichman University in Herzliya, May 17, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

A week after his party’s return from a coalition timeout, Ra’am chief Mansour Abbas said Tuesday that his vision is to transform Arab participation in politics from a useful means to prop up governments into a worthy end in and of itself.

“We want to make this relationship a goal in itself, not an instrument,” Abbas said during a symposium at Reichman University.

“It’s beyond the day-to-day,” he said, adding: “If we succeed in this model… then we can deal with the more complex and hard issue, the Palestinian-Israeli relationship.”

Following a three-week “freeze” of Ra’am’s coalition membership in the wake of unrest on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa complex, Ra’am returned to give the flagging coalition “another chance.” The coalition lost its majority in April, and Ra’am’s return restored the alliance to a 60-60 seat parity with the opposition. Its return was timed to help protect the government from the threat of a preliminary bill to force elections.

Ra’am’s leap into the government last year was the first time an Islamist party joined an Israeli coalition. In doing so, Ra’am departed from long-held Arab political strategy.

While the Joint List faction — of which Ra’am used to be an allied party — still refuses to actively participate in Israeli politics until equality and Palestinian national aspirations are credibly addressed, Ra’am inverted that equation.

Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh of the Arab Joint List during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem, on July 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“They want change but they don’t want to understand that change is the result of a process of partnership. How will the change be made without a partnership?” Abbas said of the Joint List’s strategy.

With the ambition of forging a new path for Arab political integration, Ra’am intentionally set aside Palestinian national concerns in order to focus on civil wins. Its detractors say that tangible achievements have yet to be seen, in part because the sizable funds Ra’am obtained for crime-fighting and economic issues in the Arab sector have been jammed in bureaucratic wheels. Additionally, Ra’am has only achieved limited recognition of illegal villages and building in the Negev, a key concern for its voters.

In addition to criticism from within Arab society, and even a split within its own ranks, Ra’am has been a favorite punching bag for right-wing opposition members. Some of its most vociferous attackers are from opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, a party that only last year also courted Abbas.

In addition to Likud refrains that Ra’am is a party of “terror supporters,” Netanyahu has also drawn on the Islamic Movement’s ideological ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ra’am, as the political party of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement, has come under fire for the party’s advisory reliance on the movement’s Shura Council. It has also come under criticism for the inspiration the Islamic Movement has drawn from the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Islamic organization that counts the Hamas terror group among its ideological children.

During a Knesset debate on an economic measure on Monday evening, Likud MK Yoav Galant stood at the podium, next to Abbas who was temporarily presiding over the discussion, and said: “We will outlaw the Islamic Movement as we have excluded the northern faction that is hostile to the State of Israel. This is what needs to be done.”

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-minister Yoav Galant at the Knesset on January 9, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“We’re not the Muslim Brotherhood,” the Ra’am leader said at Reichman, while noting that he is associated with parts of its ideology.

“If you take any ideological faction, Islam, liberal, communist — any party that is associated with this faction will have similar aspects with others across the world,” he said. “However, it doesn’t mean that you’re the same.”

While Abbas verbally distanced himself from equivalence with the Muslim Brotherhood, he did nod to Ra’am’s deep Islamic roots.

“If you have this title of an Islamic Movement party, of course, Islam dictates many aspects,” he said.

Abbas cited the Islamic Movement’s late founder, Sheikh Abdullah Nimar Darwish, who according to Abbas created the movement with acknowledgment of the complexity of living in a multi-identity society like Israel.

“Darwish said it would be a local movement that not only tries to but actually balances between several identities, not only the civil identity of the citizens but also national identity.” He added that Darwish “understood that he had to pave a way in which various religious identities could live together.”

Although detaching from an Islamic identity might help his party have a broader base across Israel’s multi-faith Arab sector, Abbas — himself a religious Muslim — dismissed the idea that Ra’am would separate from the Islamic Movement.

“People have said that it would be wonderful if Ra’am weren’t affiliated with the southern Islamic Movement,” he said, but: “If so, we’d lose 70% of our meaning.”

“The fact that a party established from a religious movement with all of the context is very important…We know that the religious establishment can contain new ideas and we’re already proving that,” he said.

But, with Ra’am’s commitment to its religious character, Abbas said his party would have to make an effort if it were to connect with other segments of Arab society.

“Ra’am is a party within Arab society, and not even touching on Christians and Druze,” he said. “If we want to fix the gap between Ra’am and larger Arab society, we have to adapt ourselves as a party,” Abbas said.

Abbas repeated that, barely 11-months into Ra’am’s groundbreaking political shift, it’s important to maintain a long-term perspective, as there are and will continue to be stumbling blocks along the way. “Progress isn’t in one direction, it can also go backwards,” he said.

A man passes by cars torched after a night of violence between Israeli Arab protesters and Israeli police in the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Lod, central Israel, on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Heidi Levine)

In particular, the Ra’am leader pointed to last May’s outbreak of Arab-Jewish violence across mixed cities, in parallel to Israel’s military operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“We formed the coalition two to three weeks after the events stopped,” he said, adding that negotiations were successful because Ra’am maintained its position of taking an active role in Israeli politics.

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