Just a few weeks ago, Knesset member Mansour Abbas—the head of Israel’s Ra’am Party—said it’s time for his countrymen to accept Israel’s Jewish identity.
His remarks were met with outrage—both from Arabs inside Israel and out—but he also received appreciation from Jewish Israelis and many of his fellow Arab-Israeli citizens.
Abbas’s statement reflects a sea change in Israeli politics—a positive one.
At a conference organized by the Globes financial newspaper, Abbas broke new ground for an Arab-Israeli politician, noting that “The State of Israel was born as a Jewish state, and the question is how we integrate Arab society into it.”
He also said the country is “on the verge of a new era.” Abbas, who heads the first Arab party to join a governing coalition in Israel, stated that the country’s Jewish identity is “the people’s decision … [and] that’s how it will remain.”
While the “overthrow” of Benjamin Netanyahu in last March’s election was momentous, perhaps an even more significant transformation in Israel’s government is this unique presence of an Arab party in the ruling coalition.
Israel may never be the same.
Not only does the current governing coalition incorporate parties ranging from Israel’s hard left to the far right—unlikely as it seems—it also boldly (albeit of necessity) invited Abbas’s party to join them.
Surprisingly, perhaps, both left- and right-leaning Israelis seem to take pride in the new Arab presence in the government. Indeed, Abbas and Ra’am may even have a leavening effect on normally bitter left-right animosities among the disparate Jewish parties.
What makes Abbas’s presence in the government—let alone his statement accepting Israel’s Jewish nature—so transformative is that it reflects in Israel’s internal politics what the Abraham Accords symbolize in its global politics.
The Abraham Accords broke Palestinian Authority’s chokehold on Arab peace, which denied any possibility of reconciliation with Israel until the P.A.’s intractable maximalist demands for a state with “1967 borders and a capital in Jerusalem” were met.
Likewise, the Arab parties in Israel have not only never been invited to join a ruling government, they have also represented themselves as opposition to any Israeli government. The Arab-Israeli parties in the Knesset have generally participated in Israel’s political system as a hostile force, seeming to protest Israel’s very existence.
Mansour Abbas just broke that chokehold, by admitting the obvious: His fellow Arab-Israeli citizens will forever be a minority in Israel, and it’s time they begin to work with that reality.
But make no mistake. Just as P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas (no relation) continues to spout his vitriolic condemnation of the Abraham Accords, he equally opposes Mansour Abbas’s statement.
Mahmoud Abbas condemned the Ra’am leader, maintaining that he represents only himself and not the Palestinian people. He said, “It is unfortunate that Mansour Abbas is adopting the false Israeli narrative instead of supporting his people’s struggle,” and accused the Arab-Israeli Knesset member of “falling in line with extremist elements in Israel.”
Mansour Abbas’s colleague, former Ra’am chairman and Islamic Movement official Masoud Ghanaim shot back: “We in the movement and the party do not recognize the state as Jewish.”
Both these statements reflect the impotence of the old guard. When the 86-year-old P.A. leader leaves office, the Abraham Accords and the words of Mansour Abbas will potentially free his successor from chains of the Palestinian jihad his people have shackled themselves to for 74 years. Whether they will throw those chains down and opt for peace with Israel, as well as greater independence and prosperity, remains to be seen.
Likewise, it’s clear from a string of recent polls that most Arab-Israeli citizens agree with Mansour Abbas: They like living in Israel and want to make the most of it. They want representation, they want to participate in their future. Those Arab-Israeli politicians who resist embracing Israel’s democracy may soon find themselves out of office.
To the credit of the Jewish parties in Israel’s ruling coalition, they’ve shown admirable willingness to cooperate with Mansour Abbas in supporting significant initiatives to tangibly enhance Arab-Israeli society.
Both Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid have worked with Mansour Abbas to forge initiatives for improving policing in Arab population sectors, as well as speed integration of Arab-Israelis into the “Start-Up Nation’s” economy.
In October, the Israeli Cabinet passed two broad plans that would allocate over $10 billion for Arab communities in fields from education to health to fighting crime.
“Our goal is to reduce the gaps in education, welfare, women’s employment and the economic-municipal sphere in particular,” said Bennett. “As we deepen the math and science education in Arab society, we will increase the participation of Arabs in the high-tech market, and we will all benefit,” he added.
The plan now goes to the Knesset, where it is intended to pass in rounds of budget negotiations.
While neither ruling coalition kingpins support negotiations for a Palestinian state, it’s clear that Arab-Israeli citizens have more to gain from accepting the Jewish state than trying to dismantle or destroy it.
Most importantly, the tools of democracy are in their hands. By seizing them and putting them to work—by following the example of Mansour Abbas—Arab-Israeli citizens stand every chance of creating one of the freest, most successful societies on earth for Arabs.
James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.