From the head of an Israeli Islamic party, a primetime plea for coexistence

In Israel’s fraught and fractured political climate, there’s no telling how Mansour Abbas’s remarkable speech Thursday night will impact the current struggle between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps to build a governing coalition after last week’s deadlocked elections.

But the Ra’am leader’s brief address was a stunning political event, nonetheless — and, most unusually, a positive one.

The head of the conservative Islamic party insisted he had no desire to play “kingmaker,” and was not going to attach himself to either of the competing political blocs. Rather, he presented himself as a peacemaker — a peacemaker within Israel, that is, championing a more tolerant society, more harmonious, more aware that the success of one sector contributes to the success of all and that the sidelining of the Arab sector he represents harms all of Israel.

“If the road in Wadi Ara” — an Arab-populated area in northern Israel — “is problematic, it doesn’t care if the person using it is an Arab or a Jew,” he said in one of the most evocative passages of his address. “If beds are short at [Beersheba’s] Soroka Hospital, that spells harm for patients from Beersheba or [the nearby Bedouin town of] Rahat. If there is crime and extortion, it doesn’t exclude this or that business because of [the language on] the store sign. If my neighbor goes hungry, I and my family are in danger. And if I don’t live in peace within the state, I won’t be able to seek peace with my neighbors.”

Abbas was explicit that his direct goal and specific obligation as the head of his newly elected four-member Knesset party was to champion the interests of Israel’s Arab sector — Israel’s tolerated but marginalized minority. “I represent 20% of the [Israeli] public who are dealing with all manner of problems — from the absence of personal security, and the lack a roof over their heads, all the way to the lack of personal and collective fulfillment,” he said. And after decades in which the needs of Israeli Arabs had gone unmet, he said, he would seek to ensure they were finally addressed.

But his ambitions, he said, were wider, higher; for the nation as a whole: “This is the time to find the common ground, to create a different reality for all the citizens of the state.”

Mansour Abbas, head of Israel’s conservative Islamic Ra’am party, speaks during a press conference in the northern city of Nazareth on April 1, 2021. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Ra’am, which split off from the Arab-dominated Joint List in these elections, makes no remote claim to be a Zionist party. It is the political wing of the (more conciliatory) Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement, dedicated to the interests of Islam and its adherents in the majority Jewish state. The former Ra’am MK Ibrahim Sarsur has compared Israeli military actions in Gaza to those of the Nazis, urged the liberation of Jerusalem from Israeli control, and taken public positions empathetic to Hamas.

But in his address, delivered from a hotel in the northern city of Nazareth, Abbas said nothing that would justify Netanyahu’s branding of him, in an interview before the elections, as an anti-Zionist.

He carefully described himself as “a man of the Islamic Movement, a proud Arab and Muslim, a citizen of the state of Israel.” Though deeply engaged in the Palestinian issue, that is, he chose not to call himself a Palestinian, or a Palestinian-Israeli; indeed, the word Palestinian did not cross his lips at all.

No sooner was it over than those mainstream TV channels were analyzing his speech for its potential partisan political repercussions — unsurprisingly so, given that Abbas, along with the right-wing Yamina party of Naftali Bennett, does indeed hold the balance of power between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs. And the Ra’am leader had clearly taken pains to ensure that nothing he said would disqualify him as a potential partner.

But however the battle for power in Israel’s riven political system now plays out, Mansour Abbas has already achieved something unprecedented for an Israeli Arab leader. He has maneuvered himself to the very center of Israel’s political focus and, with the nation hanging on his every word on Thursday, he seized the moment to deliver a call for coexistence.

“I… courageously champion a vision of peace, mutual security, partnership and tolerance between the peoples,” he declared. “The time has come for us to listen to each other, to respect each other’s narrative, to respect the other.”

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