The rise of Israel’s unlikely kingmaker

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Israel’s fourth general election in two years has so far failed to break the country’s political impasse. But it has marked a break from Israeli politics as usual with the rise of Mansour Abbas, an Islamist Arab politician who could make or break Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid for a record sixth term in office.

Two years ago, when Mansour Abbas was elected to the Knesset, few Israelis knew much about the parliamentary newcomer who had just won a seat on a list that united four Israeli Arab parties.

If and when Abbas made the national news back in 2019, it was invariably in the company of his fellow Israeli Arab parliamentarians, his trimmed beard and open collared shirts marking him as an Islamist among secular politicians, the men in suits and ties, the women bareheaded.

But that was barely 24 months and political light years before Tuesday’s parliamentary elections in Israel.

The 46-year-old Islamist from the Israeli Arab political ranks is now being dubbed the “kingmaker”, he who could make or break Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid for a record sixth term in office.

 It was a common theme in post-election coverage, with headlines proclaiming, “Tight Israeli vote means Arab Islamist could choose next PM” and “Netanyahu short for right-wing coalition, would need Arab support”.

Tuesday’s election was widely viewed as a referendum on Netanyahu, since the Israeli leader stands trial on corruption charges that he has vehemently denied. But after four general elections in just two years, the verdict has not changed and Israel is still mired in a political deadlock.

But no matter what the future holds for Netanyahu in the post-election horse-trading season, the March 2021 election has seen a shakeup of Israeli politics as usual. After more than seven decades of democratic marginalisation, Israeli Arabs – the Palestinians who stayed on their land following Israel’s creation in 1948 and constitute a fifth of the country’s population – have emerged as a political force.

In a country where the ideological left has collapsed, the change in the Israeli Arab political landscape has not come from its traditional progressive base, but from the conservative Islamist right.

This has led to the extraordinary scenario of a Palestinian Islamist politician having a possible say in the fate of a right-wing Jewish leader who has won elections in the past by using racist rhetoric and get-out-the vote scare tactics such as, “Arab voters are heading to polling stations in droves”.

If there’s one politician who made a clear promise to his constituency, it’s Mansour Abbas. He said, ‘We wish to be kingmakers’ following the election and they are,” said Arik Rudnitzky, an expert on Arab-Israeli voting behaviour at the Israel Democracy Institute, in an interview with FRANCE 24. Mansour Abbas has tried to introduce a new approach in Arab politics in Israel. He has made clear that he is ready to cooperate with any government to serve the interest of his constituency.”

With most of the votes counted in Tuesday’s election, Abbas’s United Arab List party – known by the Hebrew Raam – is on track to win five seats in Israel’s 120-member Knesset. As an election-weary nation confronts another deadlock, the Raam seats could be decisive, especially since its high profile leader – unlike other Israeli Arab politicians in the past – has not ruled out joining an Israeli government.

This is a fascinating shift in Israeli politics, having an Arab party perhaps playing a more assertive role,” said Israeli political commentator and analyst, Eylon Levy. “Mansour Abbas might be able to deliver Netanyahu or block him from government.”

In an interview with an Israeli radio station Wednesday, Abbas said his party was “prepared to engage” with Netanyahu’s camp or his rivals. “We are not in anyone’s pocket, not on the Right and not on the Left,” he said.

That almost verbatim quote was the theme that shot Abbas into the Israeli headlines last year and has fueled his meteoric rise on the country’s political scene.

A joint Arab list to hold back Netanyahu

Abbas made national headlines last year, when he helped parliamentarians from Netanyahu’s Likud party quash an opposition attempt to initiate a parliamentary probe into the prime minister’s role in “the submarine affair” involving bribery allegations in Israel’s purchase of naval vessels from a German shipbuilder.

The Raam party leader has insisted he followed professional guidelines and rejected accusations that he was under political pressure during that incident. But his willingness to cross red lines in Israeli politics by voting to grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution and public offers to help prop up the right wing prime minister’s future government have put him firmly under the national spotlight.

In an interview with the Jerusalem Post last year, Abbas noted that, “Most of the time, the Arab parties automatically are part of the Left, without considering key issues.” The approach was “mistaken” and required a repositioning, he explained. “We are not in the pockets of the Left or the Right. We need to act within the interests of the Arab society that chose us.”

At that time, the Raam party was on the Joint List, an alliance of mostly left Arab parties that united in opposition to the Israeli right’s anti-Arab policies such as the ‘Nation-State Law’, which elevated the exclusive identity of Israel as a Jewish state, while devaluing Arab identity and rights.

The Joint List had been making record gains over the past two years, winning 13 seats in the September 2019 elections and upping that to a record 15 seats in the April 2020 poll, making it the third-largest bloc in the 120-seat Knesset.

The alliance was hailed for its role over the past two years in preventing Netanyahu from securing the majority needed to form a government. This included endorsing Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White faction and a former military chief who infamously boasted of bombing Gaza “back to the Stone Age”.

It was a difficult choice for the Joint List, but as the bloc’s leader, Ayman Odeh explained, it was the lesser evil, compared with the danger of a Netanyahu government and continued discrimination against the Arab community in Israel.

But within the Joint List, Raam’s sudden breach of the “anything but Netanyahu” red line and his willingness to find common cause with ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties on conservative social issues was straining the alliance.

While Abbas’s ability to build bridges with conservative Jewish parties drew criticism from leftist colleagues, in many ways it’s as much a product of his background as his political ambitions.

An Islamist, dentist and ‘gentleman’

Born in Maghar, a northern Israeli town with a majority Druze population that has co-existed since ancient times with Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities, Abbas was exposed to a multiculturalism at an early age.

This background of coexistence, multiculturalism and discourse with other religions has shaped his political and personal conduct,” explained Rudnitzky.

After high school, Abbas enrolled in the dentistry programme at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he met the founder of the Islamic Movement in Israel. The teenage dentistry student was a devout Muslim and his engagement with a movement advocating Islamic values among the Palestinians who stayed on their land following the 1948 creation of Israel was a natural fit.

Mansour Abbas is an Islamist by orientation, a dentist by profession and a gentleman in his personal conduct,” said Rudnitzky, who has met the Raam party chief on several occasions.

Raam is the political arm of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement, which split in the 1990s into the hardline northern branch and the more moderate southern branch willing to engage in the Israeli democratic process.

Following his graduation, Abbas rose up the party ranks until his April 2019 election to the Knesset in a joint coalition with the National Democratic Alliance (Balad) Party, a progressive party founded by Israeli Palestinian intellectuals and a member of the Joint List alliance.

But by the next year, the divisions within the Joint List were starting to show.

Arab splits over gay conversion therapy

In July 2020, Abbas and his fellow Raam parliamentarians voted against a bill banning the controversial “gay conversion therapy”. Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, along with two other members, approved the bill.

Following the vote, Abbas accused his fellow Arab parliamentarians who approved the conversion therapy ban of breaking with their cultural roots.

Arab society protects its sons and daughters from moral and behavioral deterioration,” he told the Middle East news site, The Media Line, adding that the legislation sought to “encourage” homosexuality in the Israeli Arab community.

In the lead-up to the latest vote, the differences had widened from social to political issues.

Attempts to maintain the unity of the Joint List failed earlier this year over the renegade Raam party chief’s professed willingness to get into political bed with Netanyahu.

Without the backing of the Joint List, polls suggested Abbas’s United Arab List would not make the 2.35% vote threshold necessary to make it into parliament.

But the results from Tuesday’s vote have so far proved them wrong, with the United Arab List winning five seats in the Knesset.

The numbers speak for themselves,” said Levy. “Clearly, he did appeal to a section of the Arab community more open to political cooperation. Many Arabs want their representatives to play some role in the Knesset. Polls show that the community is more open to playing a more active part than the Joint List consigned to the opposition.”

Rudnitzky agrees, noting that Abbas’s electoral win was also a product of the Islamic Movement’s appeal at a time of increasing socio-economic distress for the Israeli Arab community. “The Islamic Movement played a very important role in Arab society, especially last year during the coronavirus pandemic amid a deteriorating social and economic situation,” he explained. “Mansour Abbas tried to introduce a new approach to Arab politics in Israel by participating, by bringing the issues of Arab society and asking the government to take care of their demands.”

Netanyahu’s Arab outreach

On the campaign trail at least, candidate Netanyahu was willing to pay public attention to his demands. In a bid to break the political impasse that has dragged on for two years, the right- wing Israeli premier made a concerted bid to woo the Arab vote ahead of the latest election, visiting vaccination centres in Arab towns to highlight his effective handling of the health crisis and touting Israel’s diplomatic agreements last year with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

Netanyahu and Abbas also found common campaign cause in an anti-crime drive in Arab communities that have experienced rising violence. Weeks before the polls, Netanyahu’s government approved a 150-million-shekel ($45 million) crime-fighting proposal for Arab communities, including expanding police stations and creating a new dedicated unit.

The Likud leader’s Arab outreach – including his embrace of the nickname “Abu Yair” [father of Yair], following the Arab custom of referring to parents as the father or mother of their eldest son – drew snickers from the leftist politicians and older Palestinians who bear the scars of Israel’s onslaught on their land and people.

He can wear a galabiya [traditional tunic] and call himself Abu Yair from now until the election,” Ahmed Tibi, a leader of the Joint List coalition of Israel’s Arab parties, told The Economist earlier this month. “Whoever believes him, deserves him.”

The results of Tuesday’s vote shows that Israeli Arab voters may not necessarily believe Abbas, but that faced with deteriorating socio-economic conditions and the country’s rightward swing, which shows no sign of reversal, they may be willing to give him a shot.

The problem, though, is that for all his talk of engagement in the mainstream right-wing political process, the doors to national power may still be closed to Abbas.

In an interview with Army Radio on Wednesday, Abbas hinted at bolder ambitions following the latest elections. “We want to use not only parliamentary tools, but Cabinet tools to accomplish things for the benefit of Arab society,” he said.

But ministerial posts for Islamist politicians may be very difficult to pull off in Israel. In order to gain the 61 seats necessary to form a government, Netanyahu’s ruling coalition would have to include the Religious Zionist Party, whose members are unlikely to agree to partnership with an Arab party.

Israel’s mainstream right parties have long preferred Islamists to leftist Palestinian politicians and movements that advocate dialogue over confrontation on major issues, including Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Regardless of whether Abbas gets into a ruling coalition or not, his election strategy has made him a critical player on the Israeli political scene.

Even if Mansour Abbas stays outside the ruling coalition, he is still definitely going to be a kingmaker,” said Rudnitzky. “Time and patience are the key words for Islamists. They have gained a significant achievement and this is just a stepping stone for the future.”

 

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