Mansour Abbas: the Arab politician who took Israel by surprise in 2021

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Mansour Abbas: the Arab politician who took Israel by surprise in 2021

The United Arab List leader's unprecedented decision to join the Israeli government was one of the biggest moments of the year

Michael Daventry

Michael Daventry is Jewish News’s foreign and broadcast editor

2F782TT Jerusalem, Israel. 05th Apr, 2021. Israeli Arab politician, leader of the United Arab list, Mansour Abbas attend consultation with the Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on who might form the next coalition government, at the President's residence in Jerusalem on Monday, April 5, 2021. Pool Photo by Amir Cohen/UPI Credit: UPI/Alamy Live News
Mansour Abbas (Photo: UPI/Alamy Live News)

There is no doubt that when Mansour Abbas, the leader of the first and hitherto only Arab political party to join an Israeli coalition, described Israel as a Jewish state this week, he was making history.

Making the remark – in Hebrew – during a Tel Aviv conference held by the magazine Globes, the United Arab List leader was breaking an age-old taboo in both Arab and Palestinian politics.

“Israel was born as a Jewish state,” Abbas told his audience. “And that was the decision of the Jewish people, to establish a Jewish state.

“The question is not ‘what is the identity of the state?’ That’s how the state was born, and so it will remain.”

It was a significant moment, not least because his half-namesake Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, has long refused to say the same.

Mansour Abbas made almost identical remarks in Arabic a few weeks ago while speaking to Kul al-Arab, a newspaper and website based in the Israeli city of Nazareth – but it was barely noticed then.

“Whether we like it or not, Israel is a Jewish state, and my central goal is to define the status of the country’s Arab citizens,” he told Kul al-Arab, according to Haaretz. “I view myself as a citizen in the full sense of the word, who deserves to receive full civil rights.”

As 2021 draws to a close, it is no exaggeration to say that Mansour Abbas and the decisions he took were the biggest surprises of the Israeli political year – more unexpected even than the unlikely marriage of the right-wing Naftali Bennett and left-leaning Yair Lapid in government.

Many said Abbas’s decision to break the UAL away from the three other main Arab parties and contest the March 2021 election alone had been reckless. They were wrong.

Many said his coalition talks with Benjamin Netanyahu – the man who once notoriously rallied his supporters with a warning that Arabs were voting “in droves” – was nothing short of astonishing, but few believed they would yield a government. Again, they were wrong.

That is why the adjectives were depleted by the time Abbas performed his monumental volte face and appeared in a photograph alongside Bennett, Lapid and five other opposition party leaders. It was a scene without precedent in Israel’s 73-year history.

And this unlikeliest of coalitions has seen out the year.

It passed Israel’s first budget since 2018. It endured despite the distressing scenes of intercommunal rioting, of Jews and Arabs attacking each other because of who they were, while violence raged over the border with Gaza.

The coalition’s strategy of avoiding answers to the big questions but focusing on day-to-day matters has worked for Abbas so far. Israeli policy towards the Palestinians is unchanged, but there’s more funding now; for example, for education and reducing violence in Arab areas.

It is too early to say whether Abbas’s decisions will go down in history as a turning point, the moment when Israelis and Palestinians and Jews and Arabs began to work towards a more just and equitable coexistence.

But it is clear that Mansour Abbas spent this year trying something new. This week’s declaration on Israel’s Jewish identity shows he is not stopping yet.

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