Poor Mansour Abbas: Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Or: Keeping colleagues from shooting themselves in the foot
MK Mansour Abbas, head of Ra’am, the first Arab party to ever enter an Israeli coalition government as an equal partner, set out to accomplish something that never before seemed possible. He stated that his goal was to improve the conditions under which the Israeli Arab sector lives, concerning himself with domestic issues rather than considering himself a representative of the entire Palestinian people on both sides of the Green Line.
In early days of the current coalition government, Abbas said that Israel is a Jewish country and will always be a Jewish country. While this is what Jews want to hear, his sincerity was and is questioned.
In this statement, sincere or not, however, Abbas publicly endorsed a form of normalization with the “Zionist entity” that is anathema to the Palestinian Authority (PA) but that should be of little real concern to Israeli Arabs who live in the Jewish state. After all, is it not just normal life when one lives and works in Israel, pays taxes to the Israeli government, votes in Israeli elections? Should one not, then, lobby for improvements for one’s electorate within the framework of such a normal relationship?
Yet Mansour Abbas’ form of normalization is anathema to the other Israeli Arab party leaders such as MKs Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh. In fact, from their behaviours one might guess that Tibi and Odeh are representatives of the PA in the Israeli Knesset, ambassadors of the PA, perhaps, and should draw their salaries from the PA rather than from the Israeli taxpayer. (See, for example, here and here)
Most problematic for Abbas is the fact that this normalization is also held in contempt by two of his fellow Ra’am MKs who are not happy with participating in the government. The last straw for them was seeing Israeli police enter the mosque on Har Habayit (the Temple Mount) on Friday morning (15 April) to quell out-of-control violence. They pressured Abbas to resign from the coalition and bring the government down. It is not clear what they think they would accomplish by that because it would result in them being out in the political hinterland once more. They would be sacrificing the budgets they gained toward bringing order to the chaos in the Arab sector of which this was one very good example. In other words, they would be shooting themselves in the foot. And for what reason?
Seeing Israeli police enter the mosque – “breach the compound” is the term they used for it — was an affront to their sense of honour. Mansour Abbas himself said that this was crossing a red line. It seems that honour is a sufficient motivator for shooting oneself in the foot.
However, there was quiet on the site for the rest of Friday and the entire day on Saturday. Perhaps because Jews are not allowed there then? Regardless, thousands of Moslems prayed without a hint of violence and the police were nowhere in sight. Arab leaders seem not to make note of that phenomenon – do not threaten violence and the police will stay away.
The violence resumed on Sunday and Thursday mornings and the police once again had to intervene. Rather than insisting that Arabs not rise up in violence, they again expressed rage at Israel for suppressing the violence by entering the mosque. While Abbas did not re-utter his threat to leave the coalition, his fellow Ra’am MKs did.
At an emergency meeting held by the Shura (the spiritual council advising Ra’am) it was decided to freeze participation in the coalition for two weeks. This coincides with the remainder of the Ramadan month and has no effective impact on the coalition as the Knesset is on spring break until 8 May.
In other words, this is a convenient way to prevent the party from shooting itself in the foot: Ra’am is not “really” a member of the coalition for the period during which Israel’s security forces need to have unfettered ability to control the violence at Har Habayit (because the Arabs are not stopping their extremists and Jordan and the PA are not coming out against Arab violence) and in and around the Old City. Therefore, while Israel is criticized harshly, we should no longer hear Ra’am repeat threats to bolt the coalition whenever police “breach” the site to arrest those who construct barriers in the path taken by Jewish visitors to the Har (restricted to 7-10:30 am, Sunday to Thursday) and amass rocks and fireworks to throw at Jews praying at the Wailing Wall.
Abbas is walking a tightrope, trying to find a balance between the need to maintain Arab honour and furthering Ra’am’s goals of improving the lot of the Israel’s Arab population. He needs more time to cement his new approach, one that he hopes will speak to all Israeli Arabs, religious and secular alike: that they can be proud of their Palestinian identity without sacrificing their civil minority rights within a Jewish state. He can do this only if the coalition survives the course. Is it possible that the Shura Council is on board with this goal?
The one thing that does not seem to be an option for them is asking that Moslems actually respect their holy mosque, the one they claim is their third most holy site. Shared on the social media were videos of shoe-clad kids playing soccer on the mosque carpets and dusty piles of rocks waiting for the first opportunity to pelt Jews. And here is the rub: the Moslems claim that their violence is not unprovoked, but rather the result of the ongoing “occupation” and therefore when the occupation is dismantled, violent resistance will no longer be required. Until then, storing ammunition in a holy place is not considered desecration (but soccer?). And this is a matter of honour for them, and not just a political statement.
Given the centrality of Har Habayit as a rallying point for Arab hostilities against the entire state, Abbas needs the two-week hiatus in order to preserve his delicate position in the coalition.
He successfully dealt with this most recent obstacle. His next test will come soon enough.
And his sincerity about viewing Israel as the state of the Jewish People will become clear by the ways in which he copes with upcoming challenges. If he does not succeed in this, it will fortify those who say Arabs can never be partners in this country; if he succeeds, it just may be a major turning point in our history.
Note: An earlier analysis of Abbas: Mansour Abbas: A Moderate Islamist?
Feature Image Credit: slightly modified screenshot of YouTube video of Nazareth Speech given by Mansour Abbas on 1 April 2021.