Mansour Abbas, the leader of Israel’s small United Arab List party, was never supposed to be anything but a bit player in parliament. He would be forever doomed to snip from the sidelines as the established Jewish parties ran the show.
But Israel’s eccentric and sometimes outright bizarre political manoeuvres have handed him a new role: potential kingmaker.
His sudden and dramatic rise to power came on June 2, when he struck a deal to join forces with the new “Change” coalition parties, which are bent on ousting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They consider him divisive and a national embarrassment, especially since he is on trial for corruption.
The United Arab List’s (UAL) four seats would put Change over the top, giving it 61 seats – a razor-thin majority in the 120-seat Knesset, as the Israeli parliament is known. Assuming the coalition wins the confidence vote Sunday evening, the new government will be sworn in immediately and Mr. Abbas will be celebrated, or condemned, as the politician who was instrumental in ending the reign of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
While victory is not assured – Mr. Netanyahu is still searching for defectors among the members of the coalition – Mr. Abbas is already being denounced as a traitor by some former allies and as a hero by some former enemies. What everyone agrees on is that his move is historic. The UAL will be the first Arab-Israeli party to join a governing coalition since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.
Mr. Netanyahu said Naftali Bennett, the leader of the far-right Yamina party, who would serve as the new government’s first prime minister, “has sold the Negev to the United Arab List,” referring to the southern Israeli region that forms Mr. Abbas’s power base. For his part, Mr. Bennett, who once denounced Mr. Abbas as a “terror supporter,” is now calling his Arab partner a “decent man” and a “brave leader.”
So far, the harshest criticism of Mr. Abbas’s support for Mr. Bennett and his coalition ally Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, has come from other Arab members of the Knesset, the most prominent of whom is Ahmad Tibi, the deputy Speaker of the Knesset. His Ta’al party is a member of the Joint List, the four-party grouping of small Arab parties.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Tibi accused Mr. Abbas of shamefully selling out to Mr. Bennett and his right-wing allies, who oppose Palestinian statehood and support the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, in contravention of international law.
“Abbas thinks that getting into the coalition is a great achievement,” Mr. Tibi said. “But he will be part of all that is negative for the Palestinians. He will vote to extend the settlements. Palestinians want more influence, but joining Bennett in government is not right.”
Mr. Abbas declined to talk to The Globe. His supporters call him a “pragmatist” who believes he can do more for Arab-Israeli causes inside the government than on the backbench.
In an interview, his party director, Waleed al-Hawashla, said the UAL joined the coalition for budget leverage.
“At the moment, the UAL is seeking to improve the living standards for the Arab residents after years of restriction and inequality due to the policies of the consecutive Israeli governments,” he said. “UAL wants Arab citizens to get access to all services and privileges exactly like all state citizens, without discrimination and with total equality.”
The Arab population of Israel was estimated at 1.9 million in 2019 – almost 21 per cent of the total.
Mr. Abbas, 47, is an unlikely power broker. A dentist by training, he became a political activist while studying at Hebrew University and later joined the Islamic Movement in Israel, an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. He is a member of the movement’s southern branch; the northern branch was outlawed in 2015 by Israel for its ties to Hamas, the party and militant group that controls Gaza.
Mr. Abbas is considered a moderate who has disavowed violence and won praise from Mr. Bennett during Israel’s war last month with Hamas. When a synagogue in the town of Lod was torched, Mr. Abbas visited the synagogue and offered his sympathies.
He has been keen to join a governing coalition for some time. Last year, after the third election since 2019 deprived Mr. Netanyahu of a majority, the two men reportedly held negotiations about joining forces, but the attempt was torpedoed by a far-right party in Mr. Netanyahu’s bloc. After another inconclusive election in March, Mr. Abbas was courted by Mr. Bennett and Mr. Lapid.
Mr. Abbas said he secured promises from the coalition for roughly US$16-billion in extra spending to improve infrastructure in predominantly Palestinian towns, fight crime and integrate the Bedouin population in southern Israel. “We have reached a critical mass of agreements in various fields that serves the interest of Arab society and that provides solutions for the burning issues of Arab society,” he said.
But Mr. Tibi thinks Mr. Abbas supported the coalition primarily because he faced a poor showing in a possible fifth election. “He was very much afraid of new elections,” he said. “He’s down in the polls.”
He also thinks the spending commitments he secured will prove illusory – that the UAL will be lucky to see a quarter of the promised amount.
Some Palestinian media have also condemned Mr. Abbas for joining a coalition that apparently has no plan to revive the stalled peace process or stop the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank or East Jerusalem, the site of numerous anti-eviction protests in recent weeks.
Ramzy Baroud, editor of The Palestine Chronicle, this week wrote that Mr. Abbas was wrong to break ranks with the other Arab parties and will pay the price for backing the new government. “His political narrative is almost apolitical as he insists on reducing the national struggle of the Palestinian people to the mere need for economic developments – not fundamentally different from Netanyahu’s own ‘economic peace’ proposal in the past,” he wrote.
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