Israel’s Ra’am Party leader Mansour Abbas prefers to focus on the future, not the past.

“You can’t go back … to make changes, to come to compromises, to try and heal all the wounds,” said Abbas. The past, he continued, should be learned from, so that “in the future, we will be able to heal the wounds and correct the stereotypes people have, and to create a future.”

This was the theme Abbas returned to time and again as he addressed a U.S. audience last week for the first time since his stunning and historic choice in June to help form an Israeli government in June. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the Feb. 10 Zoom session, in which Abbas, head of the Islamic Movement-aligned Ra’am Party, spoke in Hebrew, was believed to have drawn the largest online audience for any of the think tank’s programs.

The United Arab List Party (Ra’am) is the first Arab party in history to join an Israeli government coalition.

“The discourse of the [Israeli] Arab parties has been a discourse of opposition. We have seen ourselves always as the opposition to whatever there is. It doesn’t matter who is in government—left or right—we have always seen ourselves in opposition and we’ve always said, we want to see change, and then we will see how we can develop a partnership,” he said.

“Now, Ra’am says the exact opposite. It says, actually, that it is impossible to proceed towards a change like this only on one side. We say that you cannot expect a change if we are always opposed to each other and never are in touch with each other,” said Abbas, describing his thinking as his faction became the first Arab party to join an Israeli government,” he continued.

Abbas cited the difficult give-and-take in Israel’s brittle governing coalition, which effectively has a mere two-seat majority in the Knesset and which contains centrist and leftist elements, together with right-wing parties. It requires coalition discipline on virtually all matters, including those that can be difficult for an Arab party to accept.

One example is Israel’s “Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law,” known as the “Citizenship Law” and the “family reunification law.” Sponsored by Israel’s Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, the controversial bill passed in its first reading on Feb. 7.

The legislation, first passed in 2003 at the height of the Second Intifada and renewed subsequently each year, failed to pass in July 2021 and is now being resurrected. Its purpose is to stem the flow of Palestinians entering Israel through marriage, usually to Arab Israelis, after which they are eligible for Israeli citizenship or permanent residency.

“We are really at the beginning of this partnership, and the citizenship law, which I think is a very difficult law, hurts basic rights that Arab society has. It means that I, as an Israeli citizen but also as a Palestinian Arab, cannot marry an Arab Palestinian from the West Bank. And that is pretty difficult,” said Abbas.

While Ra’am voted against the bill, Abbas didn’t break up the government over the bill’s approval by the Cabinet. Instead, Abbas saw it as a moment to negotiate, helping to secure 10,000 “family reunification” permits for illegal Arab immigrants to become citizens of the Palestinian Authority.

“Almost every party got what they wanted. We made sure that 10,000 families will get rights, that their issues will be addressed. And on the other side, the parties that support this [citizenship law] got it through [the Cabinet],” said Abbas.

“Really, an ideal situation would be that there will be peace in the region, and then we would be able to have relationships between all groups, but where we are is in a transitional stage where we come out of a situation that is not desirable into a desirable situation, and this requires us to enter into a compromise,” he added.

He was asked about his recent comments recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, which caused a stir both inside Israel and in the surrounding region. This notion has historically been anathema to Israel’s Arab political parties, who have frequently railed against Israel’s very existence as a Jewish-majority nation. Abbas said his statement had been a simple recognition of the facts on the ground, which was needed in order to advance his agenda of securing advancements for Israel’s Arab society, which comprises roughly 20% of Israel’s population.

‘We cannot change the narratives’

“Today, there is a majority of Jews in Israel, and they established that identity without consulting us. Now, what am I going to do about it? … I am saying I accept the other. I am looking forward to the future, and I am not stuck in the past. We cannot change the narratives,” said Abbas, adding that bold decisions are what is needed to propel Israel’s Arab communities forward.

“Our Arab society is not used to this. I’ve always said it is easiest to be a member of the Knesset in the opposition. You come whenever you want, you go whenever you want. You can just be pure. But in politics, there is no such thing. The key word is compromise. A political leader must lead, otherwise, he’s (just) a politician,” said Abbas, citing high polling numbers in support of his actions in the coalition, even among voters of other Arab parties.

In the government’s must-pass budget, which was voted on in November, Abbas secured a five-year, $9.5 billion plan for the socio-economic development of the country’s Arab sector; an $800 million national plan to tackle crime and violence in the Arab sector; and the creation of a new Bedouin city in the Negev and the recognition of three Bedouin villages.

Abbas was asked on Thursday about Amnesty International’s recent report labeling Israel an apartheid state. Critics say the report was littered with inaccuracies and double standards and lacked any semblance of context, essentially casting Israel’s existence as a Jewish state as an evil enterprise. Amnesty officials struggled to defend the basis and timing of the report, with one etching out a conspiratorial web of Jewish power for why the international community has supposedly failed to take action against Israel prior to the report’s release.

For his part, Abbas refused to label Israel an apartheid state.

“I prefer to describe the reality in objective ways. … If there is discrimination in a certain field, then we will say that there is discrimination in that specific field,” he said.

“I am not proposing to disregard what is being said. But what has been published in the Amnesty report? Or other international reports or even local Israeli reports? This is an opportunity for us to look at what is happening, to be introspective, to see what we can fix, what we can change,” he continued.

“What is true in my view is not to say what is right or not right, but to do whatever is useful. I do not have this privilege to judge people, but I have a wish and the desire to do change together with them,” he said.

JNS

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