At the beginning of our conversation, Mansour Abbas draws two sketches on the piece of paper in front of him. One is a straight line, with Likud and co. on the right, Yesh Atid and Blue & White in the middle, and Meretz and Labor on the left. And where are the Arabs? I asked. The answer is a second drawing, a triangle in which one corner is the political right, the second is the left, and the third is the Arab representation, or to be more exact Ra'am (the United Arab List) and its leader, Mansour Abbas.
"That's how I see things. The Arab citizens of Israel are not really in the Israeli political game, but on the outside. We're not on the left, and not poodles of the left. Identifying with the left has been a great mistake for years, and kept us entirely on the outer," Abbas says. "My approach is to say that we're in no-one's pocket, but for the Arab community we also don't rule anyone out, no-one. There's no doubt that we have managed to put the main question on the table, the role of Arab politics within the Israeli political system, and the role of Arab politicians in the Knesset and the government."
In a previous interview with "Globes" before the election of September 2019, in which Mansour first revealed in the Israeli press his orientation and his pragmatism, he said that, if necessary, he would sit with Bezalel Smotrich, then minister of transport, to discuss the severe problems of roads and infrastructure in Arab communities. "Let him think whatever he likes, it's of no interest to me, he's the minister of transport and his job is to provide service to all the country's citizens." This morning, Smotrich released a statement categorically ruling out any possibility of political cooperation with Ra'am. Abbas: "I'm not interested in Smotrich or the satellite parties. What interests me is the leaders who aspire to form the next government."
Abbas is accessible by telephone. He takes the calls himself, and so yesterday morning, the day after the election, he answered several calls from messengers both of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and of his would-be replacement Yair Lapid, and not just them. The calls were brief. Abbas said that like everyone else he would wait for the final election results, and consult his colleagues in the party leadership, including the Shura Council of the Islamic Movement, Ra'am's supreme decision-making body, and the political bureau. But he lays down threshold conditions to everyone who approaches him. "In the first meeting with the political leader who wants Ra'am's support for the government he seeks to form, I shall demand as a matter of principle the abolition of the policy of exclusion and boycott, and recognition of the need to integrate Arab representation in all institutions of government. That's the basic condition, which will have to come with real plans for implementation, and then we'll make our decision."
What sort of support will you give?
"In accordance with the final results, ours and of all the others, we will examine where we are positioned and conduct ourselves accordingly."
The results show that you hold the balance and could be the difference between a government and a fifth election.
Abbas hesitates to say the word 'government' explicitly and looks for a way out. "Ra'am has not determined the final formula. In a democratic regime there is the possibility of the coalition and the opposition, but also of a halfway house. We are trying to develop such a model of a point in between, and we don’t rule out any option. According to the level of agreement it's possible to progress on this scale. It's too early to talk about this or that role. The level of agreement with us will determine what position we take up. It's not possible to talk about details of what we will accept before we gain the principle that sees in us genuine partners as representatives of Arab society."
And whom would you prefer?
"Ra'am is not in the pocket of the Israeli left or right. I have no preference for either side. Whoever will meet us halfway and has the possibility of forming a government, we'll consider supporting them. We are very cautious after the bad experience with Blue & White. We are interested in being part of a successful move and not anything else."
Here, Abbas gives a clear hint to an inclination, even if only a slight one, towards a more stable government, i.e., with Likud. This hint becomes stronger in the light of a remark by one of his supporters, Nazareth mayor Ali Salam, in a radio interview today. Salam said it was clear that the preference was for Netanyahu, as he was the strongest and most stable. Abbas himself mentions the disappointment with Blue & White, which after the previous election received the support of the entire Joint Arab List, or which Ra'am was then part, and let it down.
"When the time comes we'll raise national rights as well."
Abbas is the most pragmatic figure in Israeli Arab politics. You won’t catch him making controversial remarks that provoke the Jewish public like his comrades in Balad, or in caustic attacks on the prime minister and on people on the right like Hadash and Joint Arab List leader Ayman Odeh, for example. The reason for that perhaps lies in the fact that he is of the Islam Wasathiyah (Middle) stream, which is moderate and favors compromise, and Abbas himself describes it as liberal and democratic. The best evidence of this can be found in the declared policy of promoting women in the Ra'am list, which led to Iman Khatib-Yasin wining fourth place on the party's candidate list in internal party elections without needing a reserved place for a woman.
On the other hand, Abbas opposes LGBT rights, and this was one of the main reasons that he split off from the Joint Arab List, besides the issue of cooperation with politicians on the right. The breaking point came with the affair of Al Arz Tahini, when the company owned by Arab Israeli businesswoman Julia Zaher publicly supported the LGBT community by making a donation to help set up a helpline for Arab members of the community. To that was added the support of some members of the Joint Arab List for a bill to outlaw conversion therapy. The breach did not heal, and in a political move that shook Israeli Arab society Abbas cut ties with the Joint Arab List. Ra'am's stance was a main plank of its platform in the election, and gained it widespread support among conservative Arab voters.
According to Abbas, however, the main reason that people voted for Ra'am was acceptance of the new paradigm for using the Arab vote and boosting its influence. "We succeeded in persuading Arab citizens that they are an electoral asset with power and influence and that the voice of Arab members of Knesset can be significant."
And what will you now tell the politicians, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Yair Lapid, when they hold meetings with you?
"First of all, let them sit down and talk with us, and give commitments on some of our substantial demands, chief among them a practical, feasible plan with full budget backing for a campaign against crime and violence. That's our first priority, but it's only one of the severe problems we have. A comprehensive plan is required for combating poverty, which afflicts many sections of Arab society. There needs to be comprehensive action on unemployed youth, and on infrastructure. There needs to be economic development that includes industrial and commercial zones, and urban planning that facilitates legal construction."
And what is your response to the criticism over the relegation of issues like the Nation State Law to low priority?
"We have not abandoned anything. If we manage to overcome the first hurdle on the question of the role of Arab society in Israeli politics and the legitimacy of Arab society, the beginning of an answer will thereby be given to questions like the Nation State Law. When the time comes, we shall of course deal with that directly, and we shall also raise the question of our national rights."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on March 25, 2021
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