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‘It’s Possible to Do Things Differently.’ The Arab Kingmaker Who Joined Israel’s Far-Right to Oust Netanyahu

14 minute read

It was a picture that nobody in Israel could have imagined: the leader of the political party of the Islamic Movement, Mansour Abbas, sitting alongside Naftali Bennett, the envoy of religious ultra-nationalist Zionism. But there they were with the secular centrist Yair Lapid on June 2, pens in hand, ready to sign documents bringing a devout Muslim and Palestinian citizen of Israel into a coalition government with the two Jewish Zionist leaders. “It was a historic moment,” Abbas tells TIME a few days later from the offices of his United Arab List party in Kafr Qana. “Some people in the room teared up.”

Over the past two years Israelis have gone to the polls four times to elect a government to run the country, and each time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader for 15 of the last 25 years, failed to muster up support to form even a narrow coalition. The people on the left, center and right who wanted to bring him down couldn’t form one either.

But in the latest election, in April, a kingmaker emerged: Abbas, the Islamist politician who made the remarkable declaration that he would be willing to be part of a right-wing coalition, something no Arab-led party has ever considered.

The deal was delayed by a war. In May, hostilities sparked by forced evictions of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem set off communal violence in mixed Jewish-Arab cities across Israel, and precipitated a conflict between the Israeli military and militants in Gaza. The rioting and violence in the mixed cities especially shone a spotlight on the conditions facing Palestinian citizens of Israel, sometimes called ‘Arab Israelis’, who live within the borders of the state as founded in 1948. Although they make up about one fifth of the country’s population, they face systematic discrimination in housing, education, and employment. Their inability to improve their lot has been compounded by a lack of power at a political level: no Arab-led party has joined a coalition government since 1977, when the right-wing Likud first came to power.

That changed when Abbas, 47, signed the June 2 agreement. On Sunday June 13, the Israeli parliament is expected to vote to put the new ‘Change’ coalition in government, with Bennett as prime minister — a historic moment in Israeli history that not only will end the Netanyahu era, but also, Abbas hopes, be a pivotal moment for Arab-Jewish relations. “The very act of our participation in this government and in this political process brings, and I could be wrong, it brings calm to the region, a feeling of hope, that it’s possible to live together,” he says. “That it’s possible to do things differently.”

Read more: Inside the Israeli City That Sits on the Divide Between Jews and Arabs

For the first time in generations, Palestinian citizens of Israel are being treated as legitimate political partners on a playing field that has long been the exclusive terrain of the Zionist and religious Jewish Israelis. Whether it’s better for Arabs to compromise with or to boycott Israeli governments is a fundamental question that goes to the heart of Israel’s future. If Abbas’s alliance with the government can help the country’s Arab citizens it could have a wide-reaching impact.

Plenty are hoping he fails. His partners on the far-right are being attacked by their supporters for bringing a “terror supporter” into the coalition. Meanwhile, many Arab citizens accuse him of abandoning the Palestinian cause. “He probably thinks he can improve the lot of the people by joining the government, but that’s not how I view the system,” says Diana Buttu, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, who is an analyst and lawyer in Haifa. “I don’t see that we will be beneficiaries.”

Abbas says he rejects the kind of attritional politics that have led to the current, fractious moment in which Israel finds itself. “I have been called every name imaginable. Traitor, servile, submissive,” he says. “It’s very easy to stand before the other and hold a lengthy battle. That’s not me. I don’t have a goal to vanquish you, for example, but rather to bring your positions closer to mine.”

An Islamist in Israel

Abbas was born and raised in a traditional Muslim family with 10 siblings in Maghar, northern Israel. His parents were farmers who grew chickpeas, watermelon and wheat and raised goats. His father only finished elementary school and his mother only went to first grade. “I was very lucky,” he says. “My teachers saw in me something special, a potential, and they pushed me forward.“ When Abbas was studying at the top dentistry school in Israel at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he became a disciple of Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish, an Arab Israeli jihadist-turned-peace-proponent who founded the Islamic Movement in Israel.

“Everything I do today I absorbed from the legacy of Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish,” Abbas says in his office, which is decorated with photos and quotes from his mentor, who died in 2017. “He started in jail and ended with a religious peace initiative. I don’t have to pass the same trajectory. I took his teachings and I continued from where he ended.”

Darwish believed that the route to improving the fortunes of Palestinians in Israel, and pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace, was through political participation. Many in Israel, especially on the far-right, believe Islamists in Israel are linked to extremism and hardline Islamist groups like Hamas in the Palestinian territories or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; Bennett once called Abbas a “terror supporter.”

But Abbas says his movement has no links to Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood and puts this perception down to unfamiliarity with what he really stands for. “Who ever didn’t know me, like Naftali and others have said, maybe they thought I am an extremist Islamist. But the moment that they sit with me and they get to know the teachings of Sheikh Abdullah and they get to know the path I’ve made in the last 20-30 years they begin to think differently. And that’s how we got to the situation today where we are trying to lead a new path of political partnership and tolerant political dialogue.”

His party, the United Arab List (also known by its Hebrew acronym Ra’am), was established as the political wing of Darwish’s Islamist movement in 1996. Abbas has been leader since early 2019, the year he was first elected to the Knesset. “We have two hats: on the one side we are Arab Palestinians. But we are also Arab citizens of Israel,” he says. UAL supports a Palestinian state and the end to the Israeli occupation, but its active goals are to solve the problems that the Arab citizens of Israel face. “We focus on the issues and problems of the Arab citizens of Israel within the Green Line. We have cardinal problems: crime, violence, economic distress, severe lack of housing, unrecognized villages in the Negev. We want to heal our own problems.”

The ‘defining moment’ when a coalition became possible

The odds against the United Arab List ever forming part of Israel’s coalition government were long. Historically, Jewish Zionist parties don’t make alliances with Arab parties, even if it means they won’t be able to form a government, seeing it as compromising the Jewish nature of the state. In April 2020, then-opposition leader Benny Gantz, who ran on a campaign to oust Netanyahu, ended up joining him in government after he got cold feet about depending on the outside support of a coalition of Arab parties.

“That was a defining moment,” Abbas says. It was then that the idea struck him to reach out not to the liberal left, but to the powerful yet fractured right-wing. “I said that I am willing to collaborate with the whole political spectrum and that’s how I opened options and wide doors to Arab politics in the Knesset,” he says.

Of all people it was Netanyahu, who for years incited against Arab citizens and leaders, who offered Abbas a hand in April 2019. Netanyahu wanted to break up the “Joint List” or coalition of four Arab parties that included UAL and he needed the four Knesset seats held by Abbas to form a narrow coalition in the next elections. They held numerous talks. Abbas was promised budgets and resources to deal with the severe problems that Israeli Arabs face in crime, violence and lack of housing. Senior ministers in Netanyahu’s Likud party began talking about how important Jewish-Arab coexistence was.

The talks did not produce a government, but Abbas says they gave him a kosher stamp for the Change bloc to invite him into its coalition — and showed others across the political spectrum that his party, and his movement, had legitimacy. “If you do a move like that with the right-wing, then of course you can do it with the left wing,” he says.

He’s under no illusions however that the Jewish parties in the Change bloc would have invited him to join the coalition if they had a majority in the Knesset without the four seats he brings. And his coalition partners are not exactly friends of his movement; Bennett resolutely opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and once said, “I killed lots of Arabs in my life, and there is absolutely no problem with that.” (The day after signing the coalition agreement, Bennett publicly apologized for his past criticism of Abbas and called him “brave.”)

In order to preserve this most contradictory of coalitions, the leaders of the eight parties of the Change coalition have already agreed that at least for the first year they will not propose any issues that are in dispute. “Each party has its principled issues.” he says.

For the UAL, that means no pro-LGBTQ laws. Before Abbas became known as a dealmaker, he opposed a bill in the Knesset banning gay conversion therapy, a move for which he received criticism from other Arab parties. He remains steadfast to his conservative values, however. “Our position on this subject comes from a religious and conservative Arab perspective,” he says. “We don’t support religious coercion. But to approve things that oppose the religion is something else.”

What Abbas can achieve — and the question of Gaza

Abbas will hold no position in government, and so his power derives from his ability to bring it down by withdrawing his party from the coalition. He hopes that he won’t need to use it, he says. “There’s no doubt that the different parties needed to accept the UAL and create a partnership with it. But I think that with time, the UAL will become a natural part of the political establishment and then they will act with the UAL in a fair, accepting and positive way.”

He has already solicited the promise of assistance for his people. In the coalition talks, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett agreed to Abbas’ demand for more money for the Arab sector. They doubled the budget of the five-year plan for developing Israel’s Arab sector to 35 billion shekels ($10.75 billion).

Yet despite that pledge, some Palestinians in Israel are skeptical of what he can actually deliver. “Mansour Abbas won’t be doing anything for anyone. Because that’s not going to be on the agenda,” says Buttu. “It’s Naftali Bennett who is prime minister. He’s not an Arab lover. He’s going to want to show his right-wing credentials.’”

And what if that desire leads to another massive military operation against the Palestinians in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip? During the coalition negotiations in May, it was Abbas who froze talks when the conflict began. Abbas suggests that he wouldn’t necessarily withdraw from a government that sanctioned military activity against Palestinians.

“By nature I’m a person of peace,” he says. “We need to conduct ourselves in this issue in a smart way and not black and white. But in any case there will be crises and the question is: even if we aren’t in the government there won’t be a war or a military operation? … I can’t say that I have an unequivocal answer to how I will act in this crisis or another. There are many things that need to be taken into account and need to be considered before taking a decision.”

There are red lines, he says, but he’s not specific. “I will never give up on my values and my rights, the natural ones, the civilian ones, the collective ones,” he says. “But you don’t throw the baby out with the water.”

Read more: Israel is a State of Permanent Conflict Punctuated by Periodic Carnage. Only the Watching World Can Stop It

Abbas hopes he can help bring an end to the conflict, but says his primary concern is to improve the welfare of his people. “I was elected to first serve the Arab citizens and to try to bring solutions to the problems. That’s numbers one, two, and three in priorities. But if I have the opportunity to advance the peace I will do so.”

Buttu says that, morally, you can’t ignore the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in order to improve the situation of Arabs in Israel. “Being part of the government means maintaining the blockade [of the Gaza Strip], dropping bombs on Gaza, evicting Palestinians [in East Jerusalem] and building settlements. You can’t say, ‘I’m part of the coalition but my hands are clean.’ We are one people.”

It’s clear that Abbas believes that the act of joining the coalition is itself an accomplishment — but one that stands to bring both rewards and risks for his people. “We made some sort of a breakthrough on a path. We removed a wall that Arab citizens faced. There was a feeling that we achieved something. [But] there’s a lot of responsibility, a lot of dangers. Like if you climb a tall mountain, and you succeed in reaching the top there’s still a danger you could fall. And that’s why the feelings are mixed, because if you fall, you crash.”

This union between Arabs and Jewish politicians underpinning Israel’s government might be tenuous, but symbolically it offers a step towards progress in a relationship that has been going backwards for generations. Yet if the new government takes Abbas’ support for granted and refuses to help him achieve some of his goals, he says he fears what the repercussions might be. “Not just on a political level, a party level, or an individual level, but in terms of the relations between the two peoples, the Arab society and the Jewish society, between the Arab society and the state itself. You fear that if this step fails, the people will lose hope and then we’ll lose control.”

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