Will an Arab party entering Israel’s government lead the region toward peace or war?

The success of Mansour Abbas represents a catastrophe for powerful interests everywhere. It is to be expected that interested parties with the power to act will work to sabotage him at all costs.

Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas and party members at their headquarters in Tamra on election night, March 23, 2021. Photo by Flash90.
Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas and party members at their headquarters in Tamra on election night, March 23, 2021. Photo by Flash90.
David Wurmser. Courtesy.
David Wurmser
David Wurmser, Ph.D., an American foreign-policy specialist, is a Fellow at the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy. He served as Middle East adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Over the last week, there have been increasing signs that Hamas may be preparing to re-initiate hostilities, starting along the border at a trickle, and then more as they go along. These signs should be taken seriously since the underlying tectonic forces that in part led to the last war are still in place.

And yet, in this particular situation, there is a new dimension that can further fuel the choice towards escalation by Hamas, as well as for the panoply of other actors that previously played a contributing role in detonating the region last month. It is likely that Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, the Joint Arab List in Israel, and Iran and Turkey outside Israel all have a strong common interest in sabotaging the new Israeli government taking shape.

This is most easily done via escalation, particularly because of the above-mentioned forces being threatened by Mansour Abbas and his United Arab List party (Ra’am). It is possible that even Jordan might harbor hostility, not because incoming Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seen as a symbol of the settler movement, but because it cannot comfortably accept the success of Mansour Abbas.

Why? What does Mansour Abbas represent?

To answer, one must examine what he is not. He is not a dreamy peace processor. Nor is he given to grand theories of regional cooperation or of some contractual permanent change that would demand an alteration of his basic system of Islamic beliefs. No such leader would or could survive in any Arab society.

The cultural root of Arab society is nomadic, and tribal traditions that even predate Islam are as important as religious dogma. Any civilization anchored to a nomadic soul views its survival through the personal capability and following of the leadership of the tribe, which is really a quite different matter from our image of tribes shaped by Hollywood in Westerns.

Families—clans—are part of the Middle Eastern tribe, a discussion of which is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say, though, that institutions in such societies are not envisioned as “trusts,” as they are in urban societies of the West, but are embodiments of the tribal leader, who in turn is not a custodian of a permanent institution or “office,” but constitutes its very essence.

When Muhammad died, Abu Baqr was named the Caliph, but the tribes revolted. This was not because they opposed him, but because they had no institutional loyalty to the Caliphate. Abu Baqr had to personally renegotiate the terms of loyalty with every tribe, each of which would continue in revolt until he did. Indeed, the relationship between the leader and his “tribe” of followers is a very personal affair.

Contrast this with the concept of leader and institution in the West. While any leader in the West owes those in society who helped him rise to the top, the office he assumes and the institution that he heads have their own existence as a possession of all the people of the community. A United States president, while obviously trying to realize policies that deliver for his supporters, is bound to talk about being the president of all Americans.

He loses his personal validity the moment he tries to limit the office or institution to the narrow purview of clan or tribal head. There are even strict laws against such favoritism in U.S. politics.

Not so in the Middle East; the inverse is true. A leader who does not pursue the interests of his tribe has betrayed its members’ personal trust in him, costing him his claim to loyalty and following, and thus his personal validity.

In short, the mission or purpose of the tribal leader is primarily to deliver the survival and welfare of the clans in his tribe. In urban Mideast settings, traditional tribes, or the identity of having come from a tribe, still exist and are important, but are weaker.

Still, one’s tribal origins in the Middle East are part of one’s soul. Moreover, the patterns of politics and the nature of leadership remain baked into the culture, despite its having been urbanized, and are understood in those terms.

In the Middle East, the prime minister of Israel is seen as much in personal terms, as the leader of the Jewish “tribe,” as he is understood in the West to be the custodian of the institution of the Israeli state. The U.S. president is seen in such terms as well, and is expected to act as required along those lines.

When Israelis or Americans speak in grandiose theoretical terms about the global order or regional peace, it’s simply confusing to Middle Easterners. What tribal leader would talk about regional structures of conflict resolution and “interests of the international community” as standing above the interests of the tribes they represent? What tribal leader in his right mind would give in to expectations that he cede his tribal authority voluntarily?

Since survival as a community is the basic aim in a harsh environment, the legitimacy of one’s tribal leadership is based on how well he protects and provides for the tribe. Each tribe member understands that his survival and welfare are derivative of the tribe, so his purpose is to help his tribe survive, and in turn, he exists under the tribe’s protection. If some member wants to be individualistic, he can do so as a dead person.

The tribal leader, thus, to provide for and protect his tribe, must always be on the lookout for the “strong horse” to which he attaches his tribe and to which he links their fate. The wrong choice, or some “principled” choice, represents a fundamental failure and abdication of authority. So the basis of all leadership and politics is seeking and signing with the rising power.

As such a “tribal” leader, Mansour Abbas has made the choice—to some extent similar to that made by the tribal leaders of Abu Ghosh in 1948—to tether his tribe to Israel,  which he sees as the strongest horse. It is the same choice that the United Arab Emirates has made, based on the expectation of Israel’s being and remaining a rising power.

The other Arab leaders in this picture all hedge or think that Israel will not prevail. They follow in the footsteps of so many Arab leaders before them, who climbed over the precipice into the abyss by viewing Nazism, Communism, China, Saddam’s Iraq, Iran, Turkey or ISIS and Al-Qaeda as the rising and prevailing powers. So they, as these previous Arab leaders have done, attach themselves to any movement against Israel and the United States.

As long as the U.S. and Israel understand that they are viewed in the Middle East as the leaders of their “tribes,” they can navigate the region successfully, garnering power and following along the way. But when America and Israel try to be above it all and think like detached academics or political utopians who believe in conflict resolution or pacifism—or, worse, engage in self-denigrating or conciliatory actions, as they’ve often done before and as Washington is now asking again of its ally in Jerusalem—both countries will lose all value as “strong horses.”

Both become toxic and are to be fled from as fast as possible, leaving them alone and under attack, even by those who just a moment ago were their “best friends”—particularly, in fact, by those newfound “best friends” because they, more than anybody, have to dissociate themselves from their catastrophic misreading of the identity of the strong horse.

Mansour Abbas is essentially now a “tribal” leader of a substantial group of Arabs, esoterically the Negev Arabs, most of whom are Bedouin. As such, he relates to Israel as the strong horse with which it is in his tribe’s best interest to align, assuming Israel understands and accepts its role as the strong horse. In this way, it’s quite possible that he sees Bennett’s pedigree as a hardliner and graduate of the Israel Defense Forces General Staff commando unit not as offensive, but as advantageous.

His participation in the incoming Israeli government thus means several things for the other Arabs.

1. He bartered his support for the Israeli strong horse in exchange for the genuine empowerment of an Arab party—something the Joint Arab List leadership has forfeited for decades by championing the Palestinian flag over the Israeli one and serving consistently as apologists for the violence and rejection of the state of Israel that this represents.

In some ways, his fate is tied and dependent on his gamble, namely on his bet on Israel’s success and remaining strong. He is thus the domestic Arab opposite of the local Arab followers of the external rejection front led by Syria, Iran, the PLO, Turkey and others (in practice even Qatar)—namely Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the PLO’s many factions, including P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, some members of whom have even wound up in exile in the capitals of their preferred external “strong horses.”

All these rejectionist forces, within and outside of Israel, have staked the credibility of their leadership over their “tribes” and clans on Israel’s weakness, temptation to conciliation and peace processes, which it is assumed will lead to Israel’s retreat and ultimate demise. In contrast, Mansour Abbas can roughly be considered the internal Israeli Arab equivalent of the UAE, which signed the Abraham Accords. While his informing dogma may still not, and likely never will, accept the genuine legitimacy of the Jewish state, the “tribal” leader he represents—and his irreducible need to deliver protection for his followers—drives him to reconcile and seek the fulfillment of his community’s interests through some sort of reconciliation and accommodation with Israel.

In the process, he has rendered himself the mortal enemy of these rival “tribes” and their leadership, namely those whose primary allegiance is to the various shades of the rejectionist front. This is a fight to the death, so they will do anything to tear him down. Just as Iran and Turkey view the Abraham Accords as a mortal strategic threat, so, too, will they view him.

2. The outside forces of the rejectionist front—which ultimately include the PLO, as well, despite the fiction clung to by Western elites of its moderation—have been forced to surrender their monopoly. With agony, they watch their rival, Mansour Abbas, leverage his access to Israeli power to deliver to his followers what they cannot.

He, like the UAE externally, annulled their veto over any movement towards reconciliation with Israel. Jews and Arabs, this time internally rather than regionally, could find formulas to work together when their interests converge, even without having to first solve the “Palestinian issue” over which the rejectionist front held a veto.

The other Abbas, Mahmoud Abbas, head of the P.A. and PLO, once again had his rudimentary persona and purpose rejected. So, apart from his having a new rival (Mansour Abbas) for the street from which he largely already is humiliatingly rejected, he also suddenly finds himself, his movement and the balloon of the P.A.’s importance as “the indispensable factor” punctured.  Mansour Abbas threatens Mahmoud Abbas as much as the Abraham Accords did.

3. Hamas, Iran and Turkey invested immensely in creating the sort of fundamental breakdown of law and order that was expressed through the Arab uprising instigated during the recent war between Israel and Hamas. For the first time since 1948, the internal fabric of Israeli society was ripped, and the very real danger of an Arab-Jewish communal civil war threatened, within a single month.

Now, only a few weeks later,  the leader of Yamina, a party whose platform stands to the right of the outgoing Israeli government, embraced and invited Mansour Abbas into the inner circle of Israeli power structures. Symbolically, Hamas’s greatest achievement of the war has been challenged, eroded and potentially burst as suddenly as it exploded last month. Hamas has been humiliated by Mansour Abbas.

4. Palestinians in Gaza, Judea and Samaria have increasingly looked with envy at the ability of Israelis to be free and express themselves. While still uneasy about accepting the image of political chaos as potentially an expression and form of strength rather than weakness, the Palestinians are growing more attractive to Israeli society when it’s juxtaposed with the suppression, corruption and brutality of their own. This rightly unnerves and poses a threat to their rulers’ legitimacy. It may also threaten other regional leaders since Mansour Abbas and Israel have managed to deliver the only genuinely democratic path to the enfranchisement of Arabs in the Middle East, which neither the Arab Spring nor any other fashionable Arab ideological movement of the last century accomplished.

5. Iran and Turkey invested heavily, in effort and coin, in creating a new Palestinian-Arab leadership that echoes and furthers their regional power ambitions. And then along comes Mansour Abbas out of nowhere and grabs the standard of leadership over Israel’s Arab citizens, especially but not exclusively the Bedouin. Another balloon bursts, and the vast resources spent by Iran, Turkey and Qatar go up in flames.

6. Mansour Abbas also places in a potentially precarious position Jordanian King Abdullah II, who’s spent the last decade making a series of grave mistakes. Foremost among these has been his allowing himself to be defined so consistently as the cheerleader for the Palestinian camp that’s he’s become its shadow. But he isn’t a Palestinian.

He may be a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, and thus a pan-Arab and pan-Islamic leader, but he also is essentially the current head of the Hejazi Bedouin tribes from which he hails. As such, he gained little real following among the Palestinians and forfeited the following of the Hejazi Bedouin, whom he offended. These are the tribes that traditionally form the core of the Hashemite Kingdom and without whose support the state of Jordan loses its raison d’etre.

Abdullah’s misplaced attention was exemplified in 2017, when he intervened, mostly unhelpfully, in the unrest on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This was following a terrorist attack, launched from within the compound, in which two Israel Police officers were killed. At the same time, the Hawaitat tribe, which had been loyal to the Hashemite family since the Arab Revolt in World War I a century ago, threatened to withdraw its loyalty over for Abdullah’s prosecution of two of the tribe’s members for a terrorist attack on American soldiers. Abdullah chose to focus on the Palestinian crisis rather than on his own regime-threatening one.

In short, the Jordanian king has been so busy entangling himself with the PLO-based Palestinian movement, and so focused on becoming, for Western consumption, Mahmoud Abbas’s champion, that he forgot he was the tribal head of the Hejazi Bedouin, the core of his state.

He has been acting like a man without a tribe. This ultimately is what underlies the dangerous rift between himself and Prince Hamza, who clearly had powerful supporters among the Hejazi tribes.

Across the African Rift Valley in the Negev in southern Israel, Mansour Abbas established his leadership most by championing the cause of the Bedouin tribes. Their concerns and issues formed the unsurrenderable core of the demands that he made when negotiating his entry into the Israeli government. He delivered. So, in some ways, he is the de facto tribal leader of the Negev Arab Bedouin tribes.

Despite the harshness and difficulty of traversing the African Rift Valley, there is effectively no border dividing the Hejazi tribes from the Bedouin of the Negev. Historically—indeed, going all the way back to the ancient Nabateans—the tribal allegiances of today’s southern Jordan and Israel ran up and down from the north in Ma’an to the south in the Hejaz, but equally from the east in Ma’an to the West in Beersheva.

It is unclear how solid the tribal connections are now, long after 1948, but the rise of a de facto champion of the Negev Bedouin must register on the tribal radar of the Hejazi, who have been left dangerously abandoned and orphaned by the Palestinian-focused, British-groomed Jordanian king—someone who still fits more comfortably in the meeting halls of Davos than in a tent near Aqaba.

To note, when a tribal member or group is abandoned in Arab society, his or its life or existence is forfeited. When the Prophet Muhammad fled Mecca to Medina—since his uncle had to surrender his protection—it was understood by both Muhammad and the Meccan establishment as tantamount to a death sentence. One can only imagine what the Hejazi tribes today feel as they sense their abandonment by King Abdullah for his Palestinian allies. They are seeking a champion, and the Saudis—who preside over those same Hejazi tribes on their side of the border—anxiously look at King Abdallah’s failure and probably hope that he tribes find a new patron, perhaps one attached to a strong horse-like Israel.

So, it is possible that Mansour Abbas, as the most prominent champion right now of Bedouin interests, threatens even King Abdullah. Emirati and Saudi fears over the unhinged status of the Hejazi tribes—which, abandoned and drifting, could easily wander to a new patron hostile to Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, such as Turkey—could be somewhat allayed by the success of Mansour Abbas among the Bedouin Arabs.

The drift of the Negev Arabs was dangerously pinning close to Hamas and other regional malefactors, particularly Turkey whose nemeses are Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It is dubious that Abdullah is shrewd enough at this point to realize this, but eventually could see this as a threat.

In other words, the success of Mansour Abbas represents a catastrophe for powerful interests everywhere. It is to be expected, then, that interested parties, all of whom have the power to act, will in fact work to sabotage him at all costs, the quickest route being an escalation to violence or war.

Dr. David Wurmser is director of the Center for Security Policy’s Project on Global Anti-Semitism and the U.S.-Israel Relationship. A former U.S. Navy Reserve intelligence officer, he has extensive national security experience working for the State Department, the Pentagon, Vice President Dick Cheney and the National Security Council.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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