Mansour Abbas: A Moderate Islamist?
Does participaton in the Knesset lead to moderation of extremist views? That is the view of many academics who examine the relations between Islamist parties and the governments of the lands in which they live. Understanding this phenomenon is of growing interest to Israelis given the increased prominence of the Arab parties in Israeli political life, and most especially the recent bursting of Mansour Abbas onto the political stage. In 2015, the Joint List was founded by the consolidation of three Arab parties (Taal, Raam, Balad) and one communist party (Hadash) and it garnered enough support together to form a large contingent in the Knesset. For this most recent election, Raam ran on its own, earning four seats. Now Abbas is even being called the “Kingmaker” and a new political “star” as debate rages among the Israeli public regarding whether or not his party should be invited into the coalition that is very hard to put together without his four seats.
Hope beats eternal in the Jewish heart. How many of us were inspired by Ayman Odeh’s performance in the television debate among party leaders back in 2015. He seemed to be speaking for the domestic Arab population and not, as was usual for Arab politicians, for the Palestinians in Judea & Samaria. However this changed very quickly after the Joint List was sworn into the Knesset. We even witnessed yesterday how four members of the Joint List were not content to announce the accepted pledge (I am committed) but added, in the case of Odeh, “to fight the occupation”. It must be said that not all members of the party agreed with adding these provocative words, not that they do not agree with the sentiment, but that the swearing-in ceremony is not the time for such demonstrations. (We have no idea if Mansour Abbas would have joined in the provocative act because he was in the hospital at the time. He should be sent home soon.)
Mansour Abbas’ ‘Historic’ Speech
Speaking in Hebrew from Nazareth (standing beside the Islamist flag with ne’er an Israeli flag in sight), he spoke to the Jewish heart that just wants to live in peace. I would have put up a video of the speech dubbed into English but they mistranslated a very important sentence. The English dubbing suggests that Abbas says he is a proud Israeli but what he really said was that he is a proud Arab and Muslim, a citizen of Israel. So we have to be careful what we attend to when we do not know the language in which speeches are given.
While he claimed to see a future in which we all live in mutual respect, security and tolerance, there were two red flags for me:
- He said we have to respect each other’s narratives. “Narrative” is short-form for revised history by means of which the Palestinian Arabs claim that they are indigenous to this land and that the Jews are colonizers and occupiers.
- He talked about personal and collective rights. “Collective” rights is short-form for rescinding the Nation State Law and turning Israel into a secular state of all its citizens and no longer a Jewish state.
It is true, as Abbas said, that without proper attention to the problems in the Arab sector the entire country suffers and not just the Arabs. There are serious problems that must be tended to. Perhaps he is saying something similar to what Bennett has been saying after the election (in which he did not win enough seats to claim a sure path to leadership of the coalition): Bennett has been saying that perhaps his party has to termporarily set aside certain ideological goals (such as extending Israeli Law to the communities in Judea & Samaria) in order to deal with immediate problems that affect all of us – namely, the economic situation that has deteriorated due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Could Abbas, therefore, also be saying that he is willing to set aside certain ideological (Islamist) goals of de-Jewifying Israel, for example, in order to deal with the serious problems of lack of law and order in many Arab villages? If that is so, then it does not mean that Abbas is changing his stripes, but just painting over them for the moment, waiting for the most opportune moment to return to the Islamist agenda.
Therefore, let us take his speech with a grain of salt.
The New Political Star
On 5 April, Dr. Arik Rudnitzky gave a short presentation on his perception of Mansour Abbas following the Nazareth speech. Hosted by the Middle East Forum, Rudnitzky has been studying Israeli Arab society and Arab-Jewish relations for almost 20 years. He knows Abbas personally and says he comports himself in a gentlemanly manner. A dentist, Abbas only entered politics in 2019 but he had been a student activist during his studies and a member of the Islamic Movement (IM) since his 20s. He grew up in Mghrar, north of Tiberias, and was a minority in a mainly Druze town. There is a lot more in Rudnitzky’s presentation than I can cover here so I recommend you watch the whole thing. It is not terribly long.
Rudnitzky says that Abbas’ speech did not present anything new about Arab Israeli identity issues or demands but, rather, the purpose of the speech was to prepare the Jewish public for an Arab party to play a significant role in Israeli politics. He is a member of the Islamic Movement Southern Branch (IMSB) — the parliamentary branch of the IM as opposed to the outlawed Northern Branch that is the more militant faction. The IM was established in the 1970s with the purpose of Islamizing Arab society in Israel and they focused on social welfare projects as a means to bring people close.
According to Rudnitzky, Abbas seeks to improve Muslim community life and help them integrate into contemporary political and civil Israeli society “while preserving their Islamic and religious life”.Yet today, while there are more mosques in Arab towns than ever before, they are mostly empty and many Arabs are moving away from the collectivist societal organization and becoming more individualistic. Perhaps Abbas believes that he can turn the clock back on this development if he succeeds in making a difference in Israeli politics as he promised voters before the election.Rudanitzky says that Abbas is patient and believes that time is always on the Islamists’ side and that
Islamic sentiment is always in the hearts of the people, so the popular and social and even political base of support for the IM is almost guaranteed.
Abbas’ demands for entering a coalition government include nothing about relations with the Palestinian Authority, nothing about a two-state solution, but, rather: getting control over lawlessness in the Arab sector, recognition for currently unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev, and a development plan for Arab villages.
Considering how Abbas would function if he succeeds in joining a coalition government, Rudnitzky claims that it is one thing to criticize the government when you are in the opposition wielding no power, but when you have power, when you are part of the political system within the government, he believes that Abbas may behave in ways that would be surprising. When there is something to lose, such as would happen when bringing down a government (as Lieberman discovered), Abbas may be open to seemingly unimaginable support for what is now anathema to him regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is an interesting opinion, but is it reasonable? Let us turn to a recently published academic article to consider this question
Can Academia Tell us Something about Mansour Abbas?
An article entitled “The inclusion-moderation” illusion: re-framing the Islamic movment in Israel” was published in December 2020. It was written by Craig Larkin of King’s College in London and Mansour Nasasra of Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. They focus on developments in the Israeli IM and bring in examples of what has been happening in other Muslim countries in an examination of the question posed in the title of this article: does Knesset inclusion have a moderating effect on political Islam in a democracy?
The authors contend that political participation, that requires compromise and forming alliances with non-Islamic parties (such as the communist Hadash Party), does not necessarily entail ideological modification. Rather, political behaviours that do not compel Islamicists to cross their own red lines are not unreasonable to expect. In fact, the beginning of political participation came when Sheikh Abdullah Darwish, who was in prison for having engaged in terrorism seeking to overthrow Israeli rule and establish an Islamic Caliphate, made an about-face. He was determined to establish an Islamic community within Israel and is quoted as having written that:
I have learned the lesson that at this stage we cannot confront Israel using this approach. Given our uniqueness and status we must be in compliance with Israeli law, everything must be put on the table.
Mansour Abbas considers himself a follower of Darwish.
The IMNB rejected participation in the Zionist establishment and the two factions continue to disagree about method but they are not in disagreement over ultimate goals. Perhaps the key phrase in the above quote is: “at this stage”.
The NB and SB also disagreed over Oslo with the former against and the latter in favour. The SB consider themselves an independent Islamic entity within the State of Israel and the NB works more in conjunction with Hamas. Both claim religious support for their approaches. Larkin and Nasasra point to the importance of the personalities and charisma of the leaders in setting directions for their factions more than ideological differences.
Interestingly, Umm el Fahm is described in the Hebrew media as a “hotbed of terrorism” but what is apparently not understood is that much of the commercial activity in the city is conducted in conjunction with Jewish economic partners. It is also well known that over 80% of the city’s population rejected Lieberman’s suggestion of transferring the city to the PA — they prefer to remain part of Israel:
. . . the IM case reminds us that radical/moderate labels often obscure the diversity and ambiguity within Islamist movements. Islamic movements are not unitary actors and moderation is not an all-encompassing process.
The authors claim that ideological modifications, to the extent that they occur, actually preceded rather than follow participation in the political system and they question:
. . .whether religious objectives are necessarily sacrificed for vote-seeking interests.
Let us observe the behaviour of Mansour Abbas in this light. His speech tangentially hinted that he has not given up his Islamacist goals but just that he knows how to talk to the Jewish population he wishes, perhaps, to lull into a sense of [false] security. He has not renounced his desire to de-Jewify Israel. How convenient for him, perhaps, that he had a medical emergency that made him miss the swearing-in ceremony in the Knesset. We did not get to see whether he would publicly swear allegiance to Israel or, as four other MKs did, vow to fight the so-called occupation. Even if he had done the former, it would not have been evidence of a change of heart on his part any more than reciting the accepted version of the vow-to-serve means that the MKs from the Joint List and Raam actually feel any allegiance to Israel. As Mordechai Kedar instructs us in an article comparing Israel with Lebanon:
One should not be impressed by the suits and ties of the Islamic Movement’s MKs, their flawless Hebrew, their academic degrees, and the slogans they voice. The Islamic Movement in Israel has not relinquished its ultimate goal—the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state—and everything it has done since entering the Knesset has been geared toward the moment it will be rendered kosher by Zionist Jews whose personal ambitions and political disputes have paralyzed their ability to put the country first.
Is Mansour Abbas just another one who is working hard to make us believe an Islamist can accept that Judaism is a legitimate religion and Israel is the Jewish state with Jerusalem as our capital. If so, why do so many of us fall for it?
Feature Image Credit: slightly modified screenshot of YouTube video of Nazareth Speech given by Mansour Abbas on 1 April 2021.