Pragmatism or Palestine nationalism? Arab MK forces a choice on his colleagues

The Joint List could dissolve over Mansour Abbas’s willingness to cooperate with the Israeli right. And it’s far from certain that Abbas will be the one Arab voters abandon

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

MK Mansour Abbas of the Ra'am faction meets with President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 16, 2019, as Rivlin begins consulting political leaders to decide who to task with trying to form a new government after the results of the general election were announced. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
MK Mansour Abbas of the Ra'am faction meets with President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 16, 2019, as Rivlin begins consulting political leaders to decide who to task with trying to form a new government after the results of the general election were announced. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

On Tuesday, the deputy head of Israel’s conservative Islamic Movement went on a right-wing, pro-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu television network to demand that his fellow Arab politicians change course.

“If the [Arab] Joint List goes in the direction I’m proposing, then there’s a chance the Joint List will continue to exist,” MK Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamist Ra’am faction within the Joint List, told Channel 20.

Making sure no one would miss the threat, he added: “If the Joint List repeats the same mistakes, the same positions that offer no vision for the Arab community, it abandons the rationale for its existence.”

It was Abbas’s most direct and, for many of his fellow Arab MKs, most galling demand yet that Arab Israeli politicians abandon their traditional rejection of the Israeli right in favor of a pragmatic approach that seeks more government funds and attention to their communities’ needs regardless of who’s in power.

Abbas has led that line in Arab politics for the past month — and in some sense for many years now.

It’s a dramatic threat. If the Joint List breaks apart, some of its factions may be consigned to political oblivion by failing to pass the 3.25 percent vote threshold for entering the next Knesset.

The Joint List’s Palestinian-nationalist wing, the Balad party, responded by calling his bluff.

“It’s no surprise that MK Mansour Abbas chose the mouthpiece of Netanyahu and the extreme right (Channel 20) to announce his retirement from the Joint List. That’s the most authentic way to serve Bibi [Netanyahu],” raged Balad’s chairman MK Mtanes Shihadeh. “MK Abbas isn’t worthy of leadership. We’ll take it from here,” he declared.

It’s not yet clear what will happen to the Joint List. Abbas has insisted over the past few days that he doesn’t want it dissolved. Indeed, he opposed proposals in the Knesset this week to lower the electoral threshold, a step that would make it easier for the party to agree to dissolve.

Meanwhile, MK Ahmad Tibi, who leads the Joint List’s Ta’al faction and consistently polls as the single most popular politician in the Arab street, has yet to speak on the question.

Even as they threaten to topple the most successful political vehicle Arab Israelis have ever known, no one — not Abbas, not Shihadeh, not Joint List chair MK Ayman Odeh of the Hadash faction, and not Tibi — really want to split up.

But Abbas’s increasingly bold public demands that his party change course — that the national political leaders of the Arab Israeli sector make like the UAE and Bahrain, and put their own people’s pressing issues ahead of grandstanding on behalf of the Palestinians — are forcing a radical rethink on all the Joint List’s component factions.

(L to R) Joint List candidates Ofer Cassif, Heba Yazbak, Mtanes Shehadeh, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi, Aida Touma-Suleiman and Iman Khatib Yassin appear before supporters at the alliance’s election campaign headquarters in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth on September 17, 2019, as the first exit polls are announced on television. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Arabness and Palestine

The Joint List has delivered massively for the Arab community… in theory.

When the four Arab parties were forced to unite ahead of the 2015 election in order to avoid disappearing below the newly raised electoral threshold, the union drove a dramatic increase in Arab turnout, and the Joint List won 13 seats (up from the 11 its component factions won in 2013).

When their ideological differences and personal animosities got the better of them and they splintered into two two-party slates for the April 2019 race, Arab voter turnout plunged, and the divided lists mustered only 10 seats between them. And when the parties united again for the September 2019 race, they once again surged at the ballot box — to 13 seats. In the most recent elections, in March 2020, the Joint List broke all records both in terms of the Arab percentage of the overall turnout and in Knesset seats, winning 15.

Arab Israeli voters want a joint Arab list. That much is now obvious.

In fact it was obvious long before the Joint List ever formed, but it took time for each faction to accept that its voters are mostly uninterested in ideological idiosyncrasies, in each party’s socialism or Islamism or nationalism, and are more likely to come to the polls in the service of a broader undifferentiated Arabness. When conservative Muslims in Ra’am, highly-educated progressives in Hadash, and nationalists from the northern Triangle towns in Balad all run together, each of their natural constituencies comes out to vote for them in higher numbers.

But beyond that straightforward fact, no one quite knows what to make of their new unity. The different camps within the Joint List are divided on fundamental issues. Many in Ra’am are horrified each time Hadash supports a gay rights initiative in the Knesset. Balad is horrified at the blasé attitude of its allies/rivals when it comes to Palestinian freedom.

So if voters respond better to a shared Arabness than to any party’s specific political program, what sort of political program should that broad-based Arab slate be advancing?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen as he welcomes new first grade students, on the first day of the school year, in the Arab city of Tamra, Northern Israel September 01, 2016. (Flash 90)

Abbas’s call to abandon ideological politicking in favor of a more pragmatic and lucrative approach to parliamentary wheeling and dealing — to making common cause even with Likud if it brings better schools, better roads and more cops to Arab communities — is clarifying the deeper divide coalescing in Arab Israeli politics.

The divide itself isn’t new. Polls and qualitative studies have shown it and measured it for decades. What’s new is that it is surfacing, that the Palestinian cause is retreating in the Arab street, and that a longstanding desire for integration and equality is taking its place.

To imperfectly label the two sides, Israel’s Arabs are dividing into an Israeli integrationist camp and a Palestinian nationalist one.

The labels are inadequate because many integrationists, who want to emphasize their Israeli identity and enter more deeply into the broader Israeli Jewish polity, believe Palestinian independence is key to their ability to become full-fledged and full-throated Israelis. And because exceedingly few of even the most fervent Palestinian nationalists in the most extreme edges of Balad would surrender their Israeliness if given the chance — even if it was via the liberation of their town from Zionist control and its handover to a free Palestine.

It’s not a debate over different outcomes, but about what it means to be Arab and Israeli at the same time. What loyalties and offerings on the altar of Arab memory and the Palestinian future are required of someone who has come to feel at home in Jewish Israel? What does one owe their Palestinian identity when it becomes subsumed by one’s Israeli or Islamic one?

Nationalists like Shihadeh believe the many privileges of deeper integration are a poisoned chalice that gives up the fight and sets back the cause of Palestinian freedom. Integrationists like Abbas believe the Palestinian cause is stuck in any case, and won’t become unstuck if Arab Israelis keep themselves ideologically pure, aloof and impoverished in its name.

Abbas has already won

Abbas’s principled embrace of working with Netanyahu has been warmly welcomed by Likud.

Netanyahu narrowly failed to win the last three elections outright, and Abbas’s overtures have sparked new lines of thinking in Likud in recent weeks, with some political planners starting to wonder if the past two years might not have gone better for them if four Ra’am votes in the Knesset could have been bought for Netanyahu with greatly increased state funding for Arab communities.

More widely across the political spectrum, as Likud now openly makes common cause with a faction of the Joint List, its anti-Arab campaign — notably including Netanyahu’s dire warning that Blue and White leader Benny Gantz may cooperate with non-Zionist Arab factions to win the premiership — has lost its sting.

From right to left: Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon at a faction meeting in Ramat Gan on December 25, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In an Army Radio interview Thursday morning, opposition leader MK Yair Lapid showed how that is already playing out: “The next government will be something we haven’t seen. Other than Balad, who are supporters of terror, we are willing to work with the Joint List and receive its support from outside [the coalition],” he said.

A theoretical Lapid-led government would emphatically still have basic tenets of Zionism etched into its founding guidelines, and it’s unlikely even Abbas’s Ra’am could sign onto such guidelines. But even without formal coalition membership, Lapid is eager to play political ball with a newly willing Arab political force, recognizing that it will not hurt his existing base of support.

Indeed, Lapid will have an easier time reaching compromises and winning support from Ra’am than from the Haredi factions across the battlements of the intra-Jewish culture war.

The irony here is profound. By making it clear he’ll work with Netanyahu — and receiving in return a grateful Netanyahu’s commitments to more money for Arab towns and more police in crime-ridden Arab communities — Abbas has already neutralized the fear on the Zionist center-left that open cooperation with non-Zionist Arab factions would be used against them in the next election campaign by Netanyahu’s own Likud.

The Joint List faces a real political crisis. But that in itself may be a good sign. Arab Israeli MKs have long been consumed by the demands of the Palestinian cause, and have struggled as a result to take part in the parliamentary wheeling and dealing their communities needed from them. If you can’t be seen to support a bill Likud wants to advance, you can’t demand that Likud support your own bill. It’s a dynamic reflected in countless polls over the years that have shown a dramatic gap between what Arab voters want from their representatives, and the political limits those representatives have long imposed on themselves.

President Reuven Rivlin and minister of finance Moshe Kahlon host a meeting with Arab mayors and representatives of Arab communities to discuss a government five-year plan for economic development in Arab society. February 24, 2016. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

Arab local council heads have generally long since embraced a pragmatic approach to their duties and responsibilities — prioritizing the day-to-day needs of their community, notwithstanding ideological differences with the Israeli Jewish mainstream. Abbas is now channeling his fellow Arab MKs to follow a similar course.

Arab lawmakers are now locking horns against each other in a full-blown political skirmish — precisely because the fight actually matters to the Arab street that elected them. This unprecedentedly large bloc of MKs no longer have the luxury of preoccupying themselves with questions of whether Israel and their own Israeliness are legitimate. The Arab electorate’s sidelining of particular ideologies in favor of a broader Arab Israeliness has increased their national political clout. As their power has grown, the most acute and urgent question in Arab Israeli discourse is no longer about Palestinians. It is what should be done with that new power.

Mansour Abbas is challenging his Joint List colleague-rivals to use their new Knesset heft for the direct benefit of their electorate… or risk being left behind by their voters.

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