The Arab-Israeli power broker in the Knesset
There is an Arabic saying about learning from a difficult experience: “Burn your tongue on soup and you will blow on yogurt.” Mansour Abbas, an Arab-Israeli lawmaker, has had his share of tongue burns, and he has learned to be careful. During his public appearances, he makes sure to keep the Israeli flag in sight; last year he spoke fondly on Holocaust Remembrance Day. But, as the leader of an Islamist party linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, he remains an object of suspicion for many Jewish Israelis. At least four of his colleagues in the Knesset, the country’s parliament, called him “a supporter of terror.” When Ayelet Shaked, a member of his coalition, recently saw him in a narrow hallway, she walked past as he stood next to him, offering a gentle “Shalom”.
Things are almost as bad on the opposing side. The Palestinian press regularly describes Abbas as a traitor. A seasoned negotiator suggested that his rise to the Knesset created a “Vichy government”. Its breach, in their view, is insufficient engagement in the long struggle for a Palestinian state. In the West Bank, 2.3 million people live under Israeli occupation; another two million are stranded in Gaza. But Abbas is instead focused on improving conditions for the Palestinian citizens of Israel proper, a population of nearly two million who have suffered decades of discrimination and neglect. (The traditional term for this group, Israeli Arabs, is increasingly controversial, but it’s Abbas’s favorite.) In March, when Abbas attended a protest against Israeli police in the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, two of his comrades -the demonstrators hit him on the head. Although deeply pious, he stopped attending sermons at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, out of fear for his safety. “For him, it’s like not coming home,” his brother told me.
So when in April Abbas and two advisers sat down in a small room at their party headquarters to write his first major national speech, much of the debate was about what he was doing. would not to say. The speech, just two hours away, was to be broadcast live from a hotel in Nazareth. On Channel 12, a correspondent announced the show as if it were an unexpected clash at the World Cup: “All television channels cut their programming to broadcast the speech of an Arab politician, a radical change.
Abbas collapsed behind a laptop, as Aaed Kayal, his party’s chief campaign strategist, read aloud on his phone. The window behind them was closed, filtering out the early evening mist. A television crew from the investigative program “Hamakor” filmed the exchange.
“It’s time to create a reality that will make us Arab citizens of Israel a bridge of peace between the two peoples,” Kayal read monotonously. “A bridge of peace,” Abbas corrected him, his voice no longer than a whisper. Abbas is forty-seven, with droopy eyes, a barely extant tuft of gray hair and a plump face, surrounded by a decidedly benevolent smile. He is of average height and above average weight. (“He eats food in the cafeteria – lots of coffee and sweets,” a friend told me.)
His second advisor, Ibrahim Hijazi, adds: “A bridge of peace that would put an end to …”
Kayal, anticipating the word “occupation”, interrupted him. “No, no,” he said. “It would take us to a problematic place.” He later explained his reasoning to me: “Do you want to market your car that fast? Say it’s fast. Do you want to present yourself as pragmatic? Be pragmatic all the way.
The purpose of this pragmatic approach was to help Abbas lead his party into a ruling coalition, something no Arab-Israeli politician had ever done. Nine days earlier, the country had experienced its fourth electoral cycle in two years. Once again, the results were inconclusive, as longtime prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to secure sufficient support for his right-wing bloc. But, amid the uncertainty, a quirk of parliamentary politics has made Abbas an unlikely power broker.
In the Israeli elections, the leader of the most supported party in parliament first tried to form a government and become prime minister. Because Israel has a multi-party system, the winner must secure – beg, cajole, outright buy – the support of small parties, in order to form a coalition. Arab parties have historically rejected the prospect of serving in an Israeli government. (Not that they were asked.) But now Netanyahu was suggesting he was open to working with Arab interests, just as Abbas has indicated his party is ready to work with Netanyahu. Such a deal would keep Netanyahu in charge. It would also give Arab Israelis and Abbas an unprecedented degree of influence.
Netanyahu had a history of division with Israeli Arabs, who constitute 21% of the population. As Prime Minister, he stirred rage against them whenever it seemed politically expedient, but he also adopted the biggest economic package ever to benefit their community. The result, Aziz Haidar, professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told me, was “the greatest social segregation and the greatest economic integration.” Abbas chose to focus on integration. Perhaps Netanyahu – politically efficient, inseparable from his base, concerned with the more religious sectors of society – was not such a bad role model for an ambitious Islamist to follow. When I met Abbas recently, he spoke of bluntly emulating Netanyahu’s party: “Our policy is copy and paste from Likud.
As Abbas gathered with his advisers over his draft speech, he knew any mention of “occupation” would be heavy. Even if Netanyahu was prepared to ignore the word, using it would immediately disqualify Abbas from the far right. Yet, as the leader of an Arab party, he could not simply ignore the Palestinian question. Could he? His two advisers seemed to almost embody the voices that were arguing in his head: the outcome-conscious Israeli pol and the Palestinian ideologue. (When I said this to Abbas, he laughed and said, “That’s right.”)
Hijazi, the ideologue, turned to him: “Mansour, what do you have to say?
Kayal pleaded, “Two peoples! We just agreed!
Abbas nodded slightly in Kayal’s direction. The strategist won. “Occupation” was out.
The art of appeasing entrenched factions is part of Abbas’ birthright. He grew up in Maghar, a mountainous town in Galilee where three-fifths of the inhabitants are Druze, a fifth are Christians and a fifth are Muslims. “I have always been a minority within a minority,” he said. When I visited, Abbas’s father, Ghazi, greeted me behind the counter of his grocery store, where he has worked for sixty years. The place, which adjoins the family home, is a gathering place where locals can chat, talk politics and express their conflicts.
Ghazi, who is eighty-four and barely speaks Hebrew, said his views reflected Maghar’s assimilative nature. In the 1980s, he served on the local council on behalf of the Arab Communist Party, which was then prominent among Arab Israelis. He later supported the peace-seeking government of Yitzhak Rabin. Throughout, he served as the unofficial arbiter for the city’s Muslim population – “a sulha man, ”or peacemaker, Mansour told me. Some of Mansour’s earliest memories are of people flocking to the store to ask for his father’s help with reconciliation. “He’s the best psychologist I know,” Mansour’s younger brother Osama, a professor at Sakhnin College, told me.
Mansour was born in 1974, the fifth of eleven children. (Ghazi argued he was the third, but Osama made it clear that he only counted the boys.) A shy, stout, well-behaved boy, he excelled in school, although he was a bit clown. His father wanted him to move into medicine, a common trajectory for promising Arab students in Israel. (Forty-six percent of those who received a medical license last year were Arabs.) But, when Abbas was sixteen, he “discovered the mosque,” he recalls. Her upbringing had been “religious” —observant but not strict. Now he embarked on night study of the Quran, learning its over six thousand verses by heart. Within a year, he had become an imam in a mosque near his home.
News of his accomplishments reached a learned and charismatic Sheikh, who invited Abbas to join a weekly discussion group on Islamic and political theory. Some boys had quick legs or a big heart, the sheikh liked to say, but “Mansour is a head.”