Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
- Mansour Abbas, 46, an Israeli Arab dentist and chairman of the Southern Branch of the Islamist Movement in Israel, secured four seats in Israel’s March 2021 Knesset elections for his Ra’am party on a platform of cooperation, integration, and normalization, in order to advance the socio-economic agenda of Israel’s Arab population – breaking with decades of Arab nationalist and Islamist rejectionist rhetoric against Israel. Mansour Abbas’ success has positioned him as a prospective kingmaker in determining Israel’s governing coalition.
- This was not a short-term tactical move. In 2020, Abbas had publicly signaled his openness to work with Zionist coalitions. Abbas’ unilateral reset reflects the spirit of the Abraham Accords, creating an internal “Abraham Effect” on Israeli Arab politics.
- On April 1, 2021, Abbas delivered a prime-time television address in Hebrew, reflecting an unprecedented outreach by an Arab politician to the Israeli Jewish public. He said that he would “courageously champion a vision of peace, mutual security, partnership, and tolerance between people.” Abbas’ campaign avoided incendiary statements on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that had characterized the Israeli Arab political leadership’s rhetoric for decades.
- Yet, some in Israel were concerned that he was employing a recognized strategy of political Islam to penetrate a state’s political system to achieve Islamic ideological goals, comparing him to Turkish President Erdogan, Hamas in Gaza, and Iran’s Hizbullah in Lebanon.
- Israel’s Arab citizens have increasingly sought economic and political integration, with 63% supporting Arab parties joining the Israeli coalition government. Ra’am’s electoral success reflects a societal shift in the Israeli Arab sector. Two polls in early 2020 indicated a growing Israeli identity as opposed to a Palestinian identity that had more commonly characterized Arab citizens of Israel.
- While Israel’s Abbas and his Ra’am party have exhibited signs of political adaptiveness to the democratic demands of a broadening Arab constituency in Israel, Mahmoud Abbas and the ideologically immutable Palestinian Authority leadership in the West Bank demonstrate intractability and continued hard-line, anti-Israel messages, further isolating themselves from the Palestinian public, the Arab world, and the Israeli people. At present, there does not seem to be a West Bank equivalent of Mansour Abbas running for the Palestinian Authority leadership.
Israel’s March 2021 parliamentary elections and those scheduled for the Palestinian Authority on May 22, 2021, in the West Bank have focused international attention on two Arab leaders; Mansour Abbas, leader of Israel’s United Arab List faction (Ra’am), and Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and Chairman of its ideological “parent,” the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Although Mansour Abbas and Mahmoud Abbas share the same family name, they are unrelated. They also diverge in their approaches to their local constituencies, Israel, and the Middle East. Dr. Mansour Abbas, a 46-year-old dentist from northern Israel and Chairman of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel’s Ra’am party, scored a dramatic electoral victory in securing four seats in Israel’s March 2021 Knesset elections on a platform of cooperation, integration, and normalization, breaking with decades of Arab party nationalist and Islamist rejectionist rhetoric against Israel. Instead, Mansour Abbas publicly declared readiness to join an Israeli right-wing coalition headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu. In contrast, his Palestinian namesake, Dr. Mahmoud Abbas, the longtime leader of the PLO, Fatah, and chairman of the Palestinian Authority running for reelection in May 2021 after 16 years of a four-year term, is still campaigning with the hard-line, anti-Israel anti normalization messages that have characterized his Fatah party for decades.
Israel’s Internal “Abraham Accords?”
Mansour Abbas’s success has positioned him as a prospective kingmaker in determining Israel’s governing coalition. Shelving nationalist and Palestinian slogans, Mansour Abbas, while a devout Muslim representing an Islamic party, has pursued a pragmatic political path to electoral success, advancing the socio-economic agenda of Israel’s Arab population. This was not a short-term tactical move. During 2020, Abbas had publicly signaled his openness to work with conservative Zionist coalitions, including cooperating with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had aggressively courted Abbas and the Israeli Arab sector. Mansour Abbas’ unilateral reset mirrors the spirit of the Abraham Accords and creates an internal “Abraham Effect” on Israeli Arab politics. Abbas appears to have moved Arab politics from years of political and ideological rejectionism and inflammatory rhetoric against Israel. Instead, Abbas has chosen a pragmatic, issue-oriented approach to tackle pressing security, social, and economic challenges within Israel’s Arab communities.1
The Political Context and Complexity of the “Ra’am Phenomenon”
Abbas’ prime-time television Hebrew address2 on April 1, 2021, reflected an unprecedented outreach by an Arab politician to the Israeli public, particularly the political right. Abbas said that he would “courageously champion a vision of peace, mutual security, partnership and tolerance between the peoples.”3
Abbas’ move was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Several months earlier, in a December 2020 interview, Abbas said, “Our failure is due to lack of self-criticism.”4 Abbas also noted the urgency of addressing economic and social crises in the Arab sector that required political pragmatism to solve. Abbas’ campaign avoided incendiary default statements on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – that had characterized the Israeli Arab political leadership’s rhetoric for decades, including the recent April 2021 swearing-in of Knesset members. Instead of pledging allegiance to Israel, Arab Joint List faction Knesset members used the platform to condemn Israel as an “apartheid, racist, occupation state.”5
Abbas’s successful campaign responded to growing frustration in the Israeli Arab community. Since 2007, the Israeli Arab middle class has grown significantly.6 Israel’s nearly two million Arab citizens have increasingly sought economic and political integration, with 63 percent of Israeli Arabs supporting Arab parties joining an Israeli coalition government.7 Ra’am’s emphasis on grassroots, day-to-day issues attracted a broad and varied voter base despite the faction’s Islamic brand. Ra’am succeeded in attracting a wide electoral base, including young people, Christians, secular Muslims, and Bedouins who voted for their pragmatic solution-oriented approach over Islamist and nationalist sloganeering. Israeli Arab political analyst and activist Joseph Haddad noted8 that Mansour Abbas positioned Ra’am as the Jewish ultra-Orthodox Shas party of Israeli Arab politics.9
Abbas’ new approach surprised Israel’s political class, triggering a debate among commentators regarding his intentions, motivations, and goals: Was he communicating a sincere desire for Israeli-Arab integration, or was he employing a recognized strategy of political Islam based on penetrating a sovereign state’s political system to achieve Islamic ideological goals?10 Some viewed Abbas’ outreach with trepidation, comparing Abbas’ political approach to power to Turkish President Erdogan, the Hamas leadership in Gaza, and Iran’s Hizbullah in Lebanon.11
Some have argued that Ra’am and its fellow Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel’s more moderate approach compared to the militant and radical Northern Islamic Movement still threatens Israel’s Jewish majority character.12 Some of Abbas’ Arabic language post-election references to fellow Arab leaders seemed to confirm these suspicions.13 However, notably, his rhetoric and overall public declarations have avoided “hot button” issues such as Islam, the Palestinians, Jerusalem, Hamas, “apartheid,” and occupation, unlike Arab Joint Party List leaders such as Dr. Ahmad Tibi, Azmi Bashara, Hanin Zoabi, and Ayman Odeh – all of whom known for their diatribes against Israel.
Abbas had also developed friendly working relationships with senior Likud members, including Knesset speaker Yariv Levin, who had partnered with Abbas to counter violent organized crime in the Israeli Arab sector, a key agenda item for Abbas’ constituency.14 Levin had also reached out to Muslim members of the Knesset when in 2020, he blessed them in fluent Arabic in honor of the Eid Al-Fitr holiday in an unprecedented move.15
Shifts in the Israeli Arab Body Politic
Ra’am’s electoral success reflects a broader-based societal shift in the Israeli Arab sector.16 Two polls in early 2020 indicated a growing Israeli-Arab identity as opposed to a Palestinian-Arab identity that had more commonly characterized Arab citizens of Israel.17
In parallel, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic emphasized the equality between Jews and non-Jewish citizens. Media coverage of close cooperation between Jewish and Arab medical caregivers created a sense of unity during a national crisis. Additionally, Israeli Arabs were vaccinated months ahead of other Arabs in the Middle East, including Palestinians under PA governmental authority.18
The shift to issue-oriented Arab politics had picked up momentum over the past six years. President Reuven Rivlin had also proposed a “shared society” program in 2015 to help bridge the divide between Jews and Arabs.19 In 2015, the Knesset passed an unprecedented social and economic investment plan for the Arab sector in Resolution 922, earmarking ILS 10 billion to train teachers, build water and sewage pipes, renovate public buildings, and subsidize employment. Although the plan generated high expectations, robust budgets prompted organized crime groups to take over development projects.20
In recent years, the Arab public’s priorities have changed. They have placed the Palestinian issue lower on their agenda,21 prioritizing their own needs, such as fighting violent crime, employment discrimination, and allocating budgets for local infrastructure, health, and education.22
Since 2010, organized crime has risen sharply in the Arab community. In 2019 alone, 15 Israeli Arab mayors and their families were targeted by gunfire, Molotov cocktails, and car bombs by crime families vying for control. In 2020, there were 96 homicides in the Israeli Arab sector, an all-time high.23
In response, Arab MKs proposed an ILS 5 billion anti-violence legislation. The program included stiff penalties for illegal weapons possession, additional police stations, proposals for protecting the integrity of public bidding for projects, scholarships for Arab students, more Arab police officers, and encouraging young Arab citizens to perform National Service.
However, Israel’s ongoing parliamentary crises in 2019-2020 stalled the Arab development plan. Abbas filled the political vacuum, reiterated its urgency, and recalculated his political approach.24
Arab disenchantment with its Knesset leadership also increased Arab public support for Zionist parties. Notably, the nationalist Likud faction won more votes in the Arab sector in the 2021 elections than the left-wing Meretz and Labor factions combined (21,403 opposed to 21,714 for Likud).25
The growing support for Likud and other Zionist parties in the Arab sector did not occur in a vacuum. Abbas had developed friendships with several Knesset members from the right-wing Likud and Israel Beitenu parties, with whom he regularly conversed in Arabic.26 Abbas even expressed appreciation to hawkish nationalist transportation minister Bezalel Smotrich, who had helped Abbas solve longstanding traffic infrastructure problems near two large Israeli Arab towns in Northern Israel. Abbas, who served as Deputy Speaker of the Knesset under Speaker Yariv Levin of Likud, noted right-wing Knesset members’ readiness to solve Israeli Arab issues, which served as an impetus for Abbas to respond in kind to their outreach.27
Rahat mayor and Abbas ally, Faiz Abu Sehban, noted that Ra’am’s readiness to align with the political right in Israel reflects its conservative values similar to those of Jewish ultra-religious parties, as opposed to the liberal, progressive agenda that defines the Israeli political left.28
Abraham Accords’ “Ripple Effect”?
The Arab world’s growing normalization of relations with Israel via the Abraham Accords has helped foster a more open environment both in the region and Israel to encourage Arab-Israeli relations. The Abraham Accords have provided new opportunities for Israeli Arabs through business and trade with their Arab counterparts. The UAE launched a $10 billion technology fund for investment in Israel,29 and Israeli Arabs have increased their participation in the high-tech sector. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, an architect of the Abraham Accords, initiated a program in Nazareth to advance Israeli Arab high-tech entrepreneurs.30
West Bank Palestinians, aware of the Abraham Accords’ positive effect on economic and political relations, have grown increasingly disillusioned with PA Chairman (Ra’is) Mahmoud Abbas and the PLO leadership.31 While Israeli Arabs and Jews explore new opportunities with Bahrain and the UAE, Palestinians find themselves wedged in by Mahmoud Abbas’ hard-line anti-normalization platform. As the authors noted in their November 2020 policy brief, the Palestinian leadership has radicalized and isolated itself from Israel, much of the Arab world, and even the Palestinian public.32
Khaled Abu Toameh noted that the 2021 Palestinian general elections – if held – feature Mahmoud Abbas’ hard-line campaign messages which reject peace and normalization with Israel. The radical PLO faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and the Islamist Hamas movement are still dedicated to destroying Israel and “liberating Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.”33 PA leadership still preaches boycotts to the detriment of its citizens and continues to pay families of “martyrs,” referring to Palestinians who carried out terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians.34 Notably, Marwan Barghouti, incarcerated in Israel since 2004 and serving five life terms for planning and executing deadly terror attacks that killed four Israelis and a Christian cleric, is a leading candidate to replace Mahmoud Abbas.35
As normalization progresses between Israel and the Arab world, including Sudan and Morocco, Mahmoud Abbas’ promotion of BDS policies and his outreach to terror-supporting regimes, such as Turkey and Iran, only isolate the Palestinians more among critical Arab countries, specifically Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Moreover, Mahmoud Abbas’ misguided policies have dealt a blow to revive the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, setting back normalization prospects.36 Abu Toameh points out that, “It seems that Palestinians who support terrorism and do not accept the two-state solution are headed toward dominating the next Palestinian parliament and government.”37
The PA’s anti-Israel policies, particularly its boycott of the $50-billion investment program as part of the Abraham Accords 2019 economic workshop in Manama, Bahrain, contrasted sharply with Arab normalization with Israel and growing Israeli-Arab normalization within Israeli politics.
PA policies of radicalization and self-isolation have not been lost on the Palestinian public. The PA security’s arrest, detention, and mistreatment of Palestinian participants at Bahrain’s 2019 “Peace to Prosperity” workshop prompted defiant responses by some in the Palestinian private sector. “We are being pursued and threatened,” complained a Palestinian businessman. “All of us are in a precarious position. Why is it that people working on advancing peace and building a better future receive this type of treatment?”38
Despite the Palestinian leadership’s radical policies, the “Abraham Effect” on the Israeli Arab community and the Abraham Accords between Arab states and Israel have established precedents and pathways for Palestinian normalization with Israel. While largely unnoticed in Western policy circles, Palestinian Israeli normalization and economic cooperation have taken root. Since 2005, normalization between Palestinians and Israelis in Area C of the West Bank has flourished in 15 industrial and commercial zones, providing a career path to some 40,000 West Bank Palestinians who work together with Israelis under identical conditions and receive the benefits and protections of Israeli labor and social security laws.
The Area C industrial and commercial zone economic program represents a proven, sustainable, and productive model for economic, social, and political normalization between Israelis and Palestinians.39 This bottom-up economic normalization approach is a necessary precondition to top-down political agreements. Many Palestinian employees in these zones hold senior and managerial positions in Israeli companies and factories, where they are offered equality of opportunity and full economic normalization close to home.
The PA’s Mahmoud Abbas, on the Other Hand
Israel’s Mansour Abbas’ positive politics of normalization and integration contain lessons for Palestinian leadership and discourse. However, it appears at present that the PA’s Mahmoud Abbas remains stuck in the past. Young West Bank Palestinians have expressed dissatisfaction with the 86-year-old Abbas and Fatah’s intransigent and ineffective politics and called on him to resign, as reflected in a late 2020 Palestinian poll.40
Some moderate Palestinian leaders think creatively and can offer the Palestinian public a positive vision and a pragmatic approach to a better future. Presently, this seems an unlikely scenario given the PA’s poor democratic track record.
Potential moderate and pragmatic candidates remain primarily silent in Palestinian politics. Those who have attempted to change the Palestinian discourse have been shunned by their own families, while their economic wellbeing and even their lives have been threatened. The Palestinian leadership and its loyalists do not tolerate public criticism or effective opposition. While Israel’s Abbas and his Ra’am party have exhibited signs of political adaptiveness to the democratic demands of a broadening Arab constituency in Israel, the ideologically immutable PA leadership demonstrates intractability, further isolating itself from the Palestinian public, the Arab world, and the Israeli people. At present, there does not seem to be a West Bank equivalent of Mansour Abbas running for the Palestinian Authority leadership. However, Mansour Abbas’ influence may have opened a veritable Pandora’s box for the Palestinian leadership.
Regional and local political pressure may soon force PA politicians to follow the trend of normalization with Israel that today characterize Arab state relations with Israel, Israeli Arab relations within Israel, and increasingly, economic ties between West Bank Palestinians and Israelis.
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* The authors thank Tirza Shorr for her research and editing contributions.
1 Rahat mayor Faiz Abu Sehban, a close associate of Mansour Abbas, who was influential in delivering tens of thousands of votes for Ra’am in the March 2021 election, told the author that Abbas’ new political approach, included reaching out to all coalitions – right, center or left – and turn the Arab factions into government coalition partners in budgetary decision making and distribution of resources, to help advance the Arab sector.
6 As of 2018, 22.6 percent of Israeli Arabs had middle class incomes up 15.9 percent in 2009. Moreover, since 2008, the share of Arab students at Israeli universities has doubled. https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/behind-the-israeli-arab-political-revolution-a-growing-middle-class-1.9694008?lts=1618234449643
8 In a conversation with the author on April 11, 2021.
9 Shas, the Sephardic Haredi (ultra-orthodox) party, running on a social-economic platform, won 17 seats in the 1999 Knesset elections, winning massive support from non-religious voters due to their focus on socio-economic issues. Ra’am has been credited for making a similar move in the Arab sector.
10 See Mordechai Kedar, https://www.makorrishon.co.il/opinion/331143/ , Dr. Michael Milstein in https://www.maariv.co.il/journalists/Article-831418 , and Prof. Dan Shueftan in https://www.maariv.co.il/news/politics/Article-832666
11 Prof. Dan Shueftan in https://www.maariv.co.il/news/politics/Article-832666
12 The Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel is considered more moderate and pragmatic than its counterpart, the radical Northern Islamic Movement, headed by the militant cleric Sheikh Raed Salah, closely associated with the Palestinian Hamas. https://www.timesofisrael.com/joint-list-4-arab-parties-on-1-slate-is-poles-apart-but-strong-together/
The Muslim Brotherhood has a longstanding political strategy of subversion of the nation-state by democratic integration into its political systems, as Hizbullah did in Lebanon. See Mordechai Kedar, https://www.makorrishon.co.il/opinion/331143/ , and Dr. Michael Milshtein in https://www.maariv.co.il/journalists/Article-831418, and Prof. Dan Shueftan in https://www.maariv.co.il/news/politics/Article-832666
13 In a post-election speech to Arab leaders, Mansour Abbas said: “We stand humbly before our nation and dear Arab Palestinian society that lived the Nakba and stuck to this land and maintained its identity. They conquered our hearts and the heart of the nation as a whole. Thanks to them Palestine didn’t remain just a memory. Our goal is to continue to strengthen this devotion, presence and strength until this select team, from the sons of the nation, will be the jewel in the crown of the Arabic Islamic nation. Dear brothers, it is about this society we speak and for which we work.” https://www.timesofisrael.com/raam-leader-said-to-face-internal-pushback-after-urging-political-cooperation/
14 Professor Dan Shueftan, chairman of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa, points to the dissonance in the Arab sector, which creates a paradox: Israeli Arabs crave economic and at least partial, social integration into Israeli society, while at the same time, they consistently elect representatives who fundamentally negate the legitimacy of the Jewish State. https://www.maariv.co.il/news/politics/Article-832666
18 Israeli vaccination of 105,000 West Bank Palestinian workers and Jerusalem’s Arab residents sent a clear signal about the stark contrast between the equality of Israeli society and the PA’s mismanagement of the crisis. Reports of the Palestinian Authority providing vaccinations to their own officials and other “VIPs” rather than their most vulnerable sectors of their population have also angered the Palestinian public. https://www.timesofisrael.com/pa-admits-some-1st-vaccines-went-to-government-officials-soccer-players-jordan/; https://twitter.com/cogatonline/status/1372640202477481989?s=20
19 In May 2015, addressing the leadership of the International Friends of Givat Haviva (The Center for a Shared Society), an event attended by Israeli Arab mayors and community leaders, Rivlin spoke of a shared civic destiny in which each group respects others’ cultures and narratives, forging a shared identity despite a pained history. Rivlin, proposed actions in several areas of cooperation, and suggested that Israeli schoolchildren be taught Arabic https://www.timesofisrael.com/rivlin-shared-jewish-arab-identity-key-to-israels-future/
20 https://www.inss.org.il/publication/the-five-year-economic-plan-for-israels-arab-sector-a-progress-report/ https://www.timesofisrael.com/arab-communities-shattered-as-organized-crime-fuels-record-levels-of-bloodshed/
21 https://www.maariv.co.il/journalists/Article-831418 https://jcpa.org/defeating-denormalization/palestinian-authoritys-policy-denormalization/ ; https://jcpa.org/israelophobia-and-the-west/dueling-discourses-diaspora-demonization-versus-palestinian-pragmatism/
24 Jewish religious parties such as Shas have made similar moves in the past (in 1990, 2006, and 2013), agreeing to “change sides” for practical reasons. In the previous election of 2020, the Arab Joint List received 15 votes, and in the most recent election, it received only six.
25 https://www.maariv.co.il/journalists/Article-831418 The Likud list now includes an Israeli Arab school principal, Nail Zoabi.
28 In conversation with the author, April 11, 2021.
34 https://www.jpost.com/arab-israeli-conflict/pa-to-pay-three-months-pay-for-slay-salaries-to-terrorists-653688; https://jcpa.org/defeating-denormalization/palestinian-authoritys-policy-denormalization/