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Analysis'Do I have to say Netanyahu is a fascist? Or can I engage?'

When Israel’s Arabs began to demand their own ‘normalization’ deal

Mansour Abbas, who drew fire from his opposition colleagues for helping Likud overturn a Knesset vote last week, is a conservative Muslim urging ‘pragmatic’ Arab Israeli politics

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Left to right: Members of the Joint List party MKs Osama Saadi, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas arrive for a consultation with President Reuven Rivlin on who he should task with trying to form a new government, in Jerusalem on September 22, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Left to right: Members of the Joint List party MKs Osama Saadi, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas arrive for a consultation with President Reuven Rivlin on who he should task with trying to form a new government, in Jerusalem on September 22, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

For a brief spell last Wednesday, Israel’s Knesset sounded like the stands at a soccer stadium.

“For shame!” opposition lawmakers shouted at the speaker’s dais, where Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin had just summarily canceled the results of a vote that wasn’t to his liking.

“Travesty!” bellowed one Yesh Atid MK.

“Retroactive cancelation… empties the voting process of all meaning. That’s the heart of democracy,” fretted Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg.

It took about half an hour for everyone to realize the Knesset speaker was correct. The vote to establish a parliamentary investigation into yet another alleged corruption scandal surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the so-called “submarines affairs” (in which Netanyahu has never been a suspect, but which has ensnared some of his closest associates), had violated parliamentary procedure set down in law.

Opposition MKs express anger after Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin nullifies a vote calling for an inquiry into the submarines affair, October 21, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

The chair of the proceedings, Joint List MK Mansour Abbas, had failed to note a request by coalition chairman MK Miki Zohar (Likud) for a roll-call vote and pushed ahead with the vote while most coalition lawmakers were outside in the hallway. The vote passed by a narrow margin, 25 to 23.

When the speaker, Likud’s Levin, was notified about the vote, he summoned the coalition lawmakers into the plenum, announced that the previous vote was nullified and called a new one. That’s when the opposition started to shout, stormed out in protest, and let Likud overturn the decision unanimously.

The fast-moving sequence of events caught the political system off guard. For about an hour, media outlets and legal experts argued over whether a vote could be nullified. Likud lashed the “underhanded” way the vote had gone ahead; Meretz railed against the “gutting of Israel’s democracy.”

The great betrayal

And then, in the middle of it all, with both sides eager to squeeze as much political advantage as possible from the incident, came Mansour Abbas’s great betrayal, as some of his fellow Arab lawmakers saw it.

Coalition whip Miki Zohar pleads his case to Deputy Knesset Speaker Mansour Abbas in the plenum on October 21, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

The lawmaker from the Islamist Ra’am faction of the Arab Joint List released a joint statement with Levin that insisted that “canceling the results and holding the vote again was the right thing to do.”

The opposition was stunned. The Arab parties were embarrassed.

The shock wasn’t over Abbas’s acknowledgment that Levin was correct on the procedural question. Within an hour of the vote, it had become clear — and the Knesset legal advisory office had confirmed the point to the MKs — that the original vote had indeed violated procedure, since the government had a right set down in law to demand a roll-call vote, and Zohar had done so but been ignored.

Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin nullifies a vote calling for inquiry into submarine affair, October 21, 2020 (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

But none of the fracas, nor even the original vote, was really about establishing a parliamentary investigation. Had the original vote stood, the inquiry would still have needed approval from the Knesset House Committee, which would have been all but impossible without the breakup of the coalition.

But the opposition wanted the ruckus, the political theater that would embarrass Likud and rally its constituencies. Levin’s cancelation of the vote was therefore an ideal outcome. To paraphrase a Meretz lawmaker: not only had they won the day, however briefly, in the plenum, but they were then silenced by an authoritarian speaker doing his corrupt master’s bidding.

And Abbas’s public admission that he’d erred, and in a joint statement with Likud no less, had robbed the opposition of that rallying moment.

Mtanes Shihadeh, leader of the Balad faction of the Joint List, at an election campaign event, August 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

“What happened today in the Knesset was a serious breach,” MK Mtanes Shihadeh, head of the Palestinian-nationalist Balad faction in the Joint List, tweeted later on Wednesday. He was referring to Abbas’s statement with Levin.

“I want to hope that it won’t hurt the Joint List and its unity,” he added, an explicit threat leveled at the collaborator Abbas. “Yariv Levin used his political power to cancel a vote for Likud’s sake. My friend MK Abbas made an error of judgment. Likud is not our partner; that’s how it’s been and that’s how it will remain.”

Mansour Abbas doubles down

In Jewish politics, the incident came and went. By the following morning, none remembered it had happened. You win some, opposition lawmakers seemed to collectively shrug, and you lose some.

But Abbas’s decision to help Levin sparked a week of anxious debate in Arab media and politics and opened a window into extraordinary changes sweeping over Israeli Arab politics. While Israel seeks “normalization” in far-flung Dubai, Manama, and Khartoum — none of which are less than 1,000 miles from the Jewish state — a tectonic shift, a “normalization” process more visceral and vital to Israel’s future, is already well underway closer to home. Inside the home, in fact.

The next morning, Abbas faced a critical interviewer on the Arabic-language al-Nas radio station, who asked him if it was appropriate to cooperate with Likud.

Mansour Abbas of the Ra’am party holds a press conference after a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 16, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“Does our political discourse begin and end with cursing Netanyahu, do I have to say Netanyahu is a racist and a fascist and so on?” Abbas shot back. “Or can I engage with political issues?”

The interviewer responded: “But Netanyahu is a racist and a fascist. We want to understand [your behavior], because that’s the customary rhetoric in the Joint List.”

Abbas: “Again, again, my brother Mohammed. My style isn’t the style of someone who stands at the podium and just mouths populist words.”

Interviewer: “Doctor, your style with some parts of the Joint List, and I remember it well, it seems you’re sharper with your partners than with Netanyahu. And that’s the complaint against you in the Joint List.”

“When have I ever attacked my friends in the Joint List?” Abbas demanded.

Joint List leaders Ayman Odeh (2nd-L), Ahmad Tibi (2nd-R), Mtanes Shehadeh (L) and Mansour Abbas meet at the Knesset on September 22, 2019, ahead of their alliance’s meeting with President Reuven Rivlin to discuss whom they’ll recommend should form the next government. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It was an uncomfortable exchange, and a telling one. Abbas did not deny seeking a pragmatic posture in Israeli politics, even, he stressed openly, with the hated Israeli right.

The criticism didn’t stop — and neither did Abbas. On Saturday he published a long post in Arabic on Facebook, arguing that Arabs were ill-served by the belief that their political role was limited to being the “reserve force” propping up the Israeli left. It was time to get “the resources and rights we deserve” from whomever is in power.

“I’m not afraid to say I’m introducing a pragmatic new political style,” Abbas said bluntly. “I truly believe that if we want to bring about real, tangible change for our community, we have to become influential in decision-making.”

Israeli politics, he went on, wasn’t divided between “left” and “right,” at least not where Israel’s Arab citizens were concerned. “I have not inherited incorrect political concepts based on dividing the ‘right’ and ‘left’ of the Israeli political map, as if the largest role we can expect is to be a reserve force for the so-called ‘Zionist left.’” The left is now “extremely weak and on the brink of extinction. The right holds the reins of power and it appears entrenched there for years to come. So what can we do as Arab parliamentarians? Do we wait for the next resurrection of the left?

“My approach: I’m in nobody’s pocket. Neither left nor right. My compass is in the ‘pocket’ of Arab society. That is to say, the resources and rights we deserve. My role is to do as much as I can to obtain them by mastering the art of political possibility.”

Joint List MKs Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi attend a protest against violence, organized crime and recent killings in the Arab communities, Majd al-Krum, October 3, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Over 4,300 “likes” and 700 comments trail beneath the post, nearly all positive.

‘Sitting with Netanyahu?’

On Tuesday, six days after the original Knesset vote by now long forgotten by the Jews but still roiling Arab politics, Abbas gave an interview to DemocratTV, an online television channel anchored by Arab Israeli journalist Lucy Aharish. It was there that the Arabic-language debate broke into the Hebrew one. Aharish interviewed Abbas in Hebrew.

Was he trying to take a page out of the Haredi playbook? Aharish asked, a reference to the Haredi parties’ historic willingness to sit with either side in government in order to secure budgets for their institutions.

Joint List MK Mansour Abbas in an interview on DemocratTV, October 27, 2020. (Twitter screen capture)

“We won’t succeed in playing the game the Haredim play,” Abbas replied. “But in my view at least to try to be part of the game, to try to influence.”

“That means you don’t rule out sitting with Netanyahu?” Aharish asked — again, in Hebrew.

“What does that mean? You have to be specific,” Abbas said guardedly.

Aharish: “Let’s be specific. [Would you say:] ‘If we get a good enough offer, to be heads of committees, cabinet posts, if Netanyahu turns to us, we are capable of sitting in a government with Netanyahu.’”

Abbas’s reply: “If I was a regular Arab MK who’s used to a certain discourse, I’d tell you, ‘There’s no such thing. We’d never agree to sit in Netanyahu’s government.’ But I say different. Instead of giving that answer, and then the other side can say, ‘Look, the Arabs don’t want to integrate, don’t want to participate, don’t want to have a say,’ I say, ‘Sure.’ If the prime minister or the head of another party who’s a candidate for prime minister has this attitude [i.e., is willing to have Arab parties as coalition partners], let’s have them say they’re interested in the Joint List, that they want [us] in the circle of decision-makers, and then I’ll have the opportunity to say yes or no.

“Why say no before we get an offer? Why? Anyone who has the right to form a government, let him turn to us, we’ll sit, we’ll discuss, and then we’ll decide.”

Joint List MK Mansour Abbas, left, is interviewed by anchor Lucy Aharish on DemocratTV, October 27, 2020. (Twitter screen capture)

Political negotiations are always a guarded affair. Eagerness, after all, is weakness. That Mansour Abbas took great care not to rule out a coalition role for his party is as clear a signal as one could issue that he is asking to be invited in. And the possibility that it may be Netanyahu doing the inviting doesn’t faze him one bit.

Islamist moderation

Ra’am, the party Abbas leads, is an acronym for “United Arab List.” At its founding in 1996, it aspired to become the unified voice for a diverse and often bickering Arab Israeli political world.

It failed in that project (though the Joint List would succeed two decades later). Instead, Ra’am emerged into the Arab political landscape as the political home of the conservative Muslim impulse within Israel’s Arab population. In all but name, it is the political vehicle for the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement.

The Islamic Movement of Israel is emphatically an “Islamist” group — that is, it argues for a politicized Islam and teaches its adherents that rededication to the Muslim religion is the solution to the social and political tribulations that afflict the Arab peoples. It borrows ideas and vocabulary from similar movements throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Thousands of supporters of the Islamic Movement in Israel, and its Northern Branch leader, Sheikh Raed Salah, demonstrate against Israel’s decision to outlaw the Northern Branch, on November 28, 2015, in Umm al-Fahm, northern Israel. (Muammar Awad/Flash90)

The Israeli version of Islamism is divided into two starkly different “branches,” the openly anti-Israel northern branch headquartered in the Galilee town of Umm al-Fahm, and the pro-integration southern branch which draws much of its support from the Bedouin of the southern Negev desert. The two halves formally split in 1996 over the question of Palestinian nationalism. Both branches support Palestinian independence, but it was only the northern branch that openly supported violence and extolled terrorism. Northern branch head Raed Salah, a cleric who was once mayor of Umm al-Fahm, has served time in Israeli prisons for advocating for terrorism. The northern branch itself was declared an illegal organization in 2015 after its officials were caught funneling funds to Hamas.

The founder of Israel’s Islamic Movement, Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish, seen in Jerusalem on December 19, 2006. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

But under the leadership of the late Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish, the original founder in 1971 of the Israeli Islamic Movement, the southern branch took a different path. Though he supported violence early in his career, Darwish turned away from violence after a short prison term in the early 1980s. Proclaiming his adherence to wasatiyyah, a broad concept within Islam usually translated as “moderation,” Darwish spent the three decades until his death in 2017 urging Israel’s Arab community to reject terrorism, rededicate themselves to their Islamic faith, integrate into Israeli society, and demand their rights through its parliamentary democracy.

Mansour Abbas’s proclamation of a “pragmatic new political style” is no momentary tactical shift. Abbas was a prominent student of Darwish. He is also the deputy chairman of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement.

It’s no accident that the loudest condemnation of Abbas has come from Balad, the most fervently Palestinian-nationalist of Arab Israeli factions. When Balad’s Shihadeh rails against Abbas’s open and eager cooperation with Likud, the standoff reflects a fundamental question for the Israeli Arab community.

Tectonic shift

Abbas isn’t pro-Netanyahu. Nor is he liberal. He is a conservative Muslim whose party is popular among the most conservative of Israeli Arabs, especially in the scattered Bedouin encampments in the south where households are large and men often marry more than one wife. His fellow Ra’am MKs include Iman Khatib Yassin, the first MK to wear a hijab.

Balad suspects Ra’am of being soft on the Palestinian national question, but Ra’am suspects Balad in turn of favoring nationalism over faith. This isn’t a left-right dispute, and that fact alone lends Ra’am an advantage. As the Palestinian cause fades throughout the Arab world, it fades among Israeli Arabs as well. Balad’s party machine has withered since its iconic leader Azmi Bishara fled Israel in 2007 to avoid standing trial on charges of aiding Hezbollah. And the demand to integrate, to gain acceptance, to be heard in the media and in politics, to have a say in the affairs of a country they have come to accept as their own — even if they feel it has yet to accept them as its own — has overwhelmed the old ideologies.

In embracing the integrationist impulse, Abbas grants that impulse a voice and an imprimatur of Islamic authenticity.

Youth in Umm al-Fahm protest against violence in the Arab community, demanding more police action, September 29, 2019. (YouTube screenshot)

Aharish asked Abbas in their interview if he seeks a Haredi-like role in Israeli politics, free of political ideology and swayable to whichever side offers more funding and influence — and, she might have added, doing all that while enjoying the political protection afforded by pious religiosity. The Haredi parallel is striking.

Indeed, some small percentage of Negev Bedouin prefers Shas to Ra’am at each election cycle, for its support for child subsidies and its keen defense of religious state institutions. Israeli Islamists are as invested in Israel’s official sharia courts and Islamic qadi bureaucracy as Shas is in the rabbinic courts and state rabbinate.

Some have suggested over the past week that the fight over Abbas’s new direction threatens the future of the Joint List, which even in the best of times is an inherently uncomfortable alliance of very different sorts of people. After all, what do Hadash progressives, Balad nationalists, and Ra’am Islamists share but their Arabness?

But there’s a powerful gravitational force reining them all in: their voters. Each time the Arab parties have united, their vote tally has grown. It has grown among all different kinds of Arabs. When Hadash ran alone, it won fewer college-educated progressives than when it ran together with Islamist conservatives as a unified bloc. More rural Bedouin flocked to the voting booth when they believed Arab Christians were voting with them than when they didn’t.

What does that favoring of a shared Arabness mean? If Mansour Abbas’s new pragmatism is any indication, it could signal that Israel’s Arabs are increasingly thinking of themselves not in a narrowly Arab context but in a broader Israeli one, as one community among many vying for resources and attention in the broader political landscape.

Leaders sometimes strike out boldly in a new direction, hoping their flock will follow. Mansour Abbas doesn’t seem to believe that’s what’s happening. He seems to think — and despite the vituperation of some this week, he seems to be right — that the Arab Israeli community is already there, already eager for integration and influence. It’s time, he is arguing, for Israel’s Arab leaders to follow.

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