Director’s blog: MK Abbas’ speech – a dramatic shift in Israeli politics

Last week, on Thursday night, a historic speech was made on Israeli primetime TV by the leader of the United Arab List, Dr. Mansour Abbas. The United Arab List is known in Israel by its acronym, RA’AM, and is part of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel (considered more moderate than the Northern Branch). The goal of the Islamic Movement in Israel is to advocate for Islam among Arabs and Circassians in Israel. RA’AM, founded in 1996, just won 4 seats in the recent Israeli parliamentary elections after having broken off from the Joint List, the party that brought together the four major Israeli Arab parties in order to run together in Israeli elections. The Joint List won 15 seats in the previous elections held a year ago in March 2020, but ended up left out of coalition discussions when Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party joined with Benyamin Netanyahu and the Likud to form a “national unity” government. Member of Knesset (MK) Abbas decided that he could do more for his party and for his people by RA’AM running as a separate list. MK Abbas also took the unusual step of not committing to support either the “pro-Bibi” or “anti-Bibi” blocks during the election campaign, and made it clear that he was open to offers from all sides. When the election results were finalized, it became clear that the pro-Bibi block did not have enough mandates to form a government without both RA’AM and Naftali Bennet’s right wing Yamina Party, which had also not made a firm commitment to either block during the campaign. The anti-Bibi block, made up of left, center and right wing parties did not have enough mandates to form a government either unless RA’AM joined the block. This put MK Abbas in a unique and unprecedented position. For the first time in Israel’s history, an Arab politician held the keys to forming the next Israeli government.

This is why, at 8 pm last Thursday, the entire country waited with high anticipation to hear MK Dr. Mansour Abbas’ speech to reporters, timed to coincide with the start of the three Israeli TV networks’ evening news broadcast. RA’AM, in Hebrew, means thunder and the words of MK Abbas had the potential to shake the ground underneath the Israeli political establishment. While MK Abbas refrained from declaring his intention to support one block or the other, thus determining the likelihood that one side or the other would form the next government, his speech was historic for many reasons. The fact that the most important political speech made since the election was made by the head of an Israeli Arab political party is new territory for Israel, but the content of the speech suggests a sea change in Israeli politics and possibly Israeli society as a whole.

MK Abbas opened his speech to the citizens of Israel with a Pesach and Ramadan greeting. He declared his desire for coexistence on the basis of mutual respect and true equality. He emphasized that what we have in common is much greater than that which divides us. His desire as a proud member of the Islamic faith and as an Israeli citizen is for a vision of equality, coexistence and tolerance. According to MK Abbas, RA’AM stands against violence towards anyone based on politics, nationality or religion. As if MK Abbas just walked out of an Arava Institute Peace-Building Leadership Seminar session, he declared that it was time to listen to the other, and acknowledge our narratives. “While we may disagree on many subjects, we have to give ourselves and our children the opportunity to know each other.”

He went on to speak about the many problems facing the Arab community, more than 20% of Israel’s population, from financial insecurity to housing shortage, but at the same time he emphasized that many of the problems faced by Israelis such as poor roads, weak health services or hunger, do not distinguish between Jews and Arabs. Most importantly, MK Abbas declared that “if I am not living in peace within Israel, I will not be able to live in peace with my neighbors”, offering a paradigm shift in Arab Israeli politics; suggesting that Palestinian-Israeli domestic concerns must be addressed before addressing Palestinian national aspirations. He concluded with a call for change from both Left and Right.

I am not naive enough to ignore the fact that MK Abbas represents a deeply conservative Islamic fundamentalist movement which denies women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and secular cultural expression. In fact, RA’AM has more in common with Jewish ultra-orthodox religious political parties such as Shas and United Torah Judaism, then with leftist parties like Meretz or the Labor Party. In fact, one of the leaders of the ultra-orthodox community in Israel, Rabbi Chaim Konievsky said that the ultra-orthodox have more in common with the Arabs than with the Center-Left parties. It is also clear that MK Abbas’ speech specifically targeted right-wing Israelis in order to soften opposition to a right-wing coalition government resting on support from the United Arab List. While Israel is still a long-way away from seeing a new government, it is possible that his speech and his new political strategy will result in the establishment of an extreme right-wing government (including the racist heirs to the political movement of Rabbi Meir Kahane), but one in which Israeli Arab concerns may be seriously addressed for the first time. The formation of a right wing government is not an outcome for which I personally had hoped but an Arab party using realpolitik to make gains for the Arab minority in Israel will have a profound long-term impact on the dysfunctional political system in Israel. It remains to be seen if the Israeli Center-Left will learn from past mistakes in taking the Arab political parties for granted and take advantage of this new dramatic shift in the Israeli political landscape.

Dr. David Lehrer

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