Mansour Abbas, the Islamist leader who could be Israel’s kingmaker

Mustafa Abu Sneineh

Middle East Eye  /  March 24, 2021

Abbas has called on Palestinians inside Israel to rethink their political alliances and be open to Jewish parties.

Mansour Abbas, the Islamist, conservative leader of the United Arab List (UAL) party in Israel, known as Ra’am in its Hebrew acronym, could end up being the country’s kingmaker.

Israel’s fourth election in two years ended, yet again, with no outright winner. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party is projected to win 30 of the 120 seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, but needs 61 to form a coalition government.

If Netanyahu is able to cobble together a right-wing coalition, Ra’am’s five projected seats may well take the prime minister over the threshold and deliver him another term in power.

Abbas, who was born in 1974 in the small Galilean town of Maghar in northern Israel, sees himself first and foremost as an Israeli citizen – someone with a Muslim and an Arab cultural and religious background living in the state of Israel.

He has in the past called on Palestinian citizens of Israel to rethink their political alliances and be open to Jewish parties, be they national, religious or ultra-Orthodox, if their policies served their community interests.

Abbas, who studied dental medicine at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, became a Knesset member in September 2019 on the Arab Joint List, a political alliance that represents Palestinian citizens inside Israel, who make up 20 percent of the country’s population.

In 2007, he was elected as a senior official in the Islamic Movement (southern branch) before becoming the leader of Ra’am, the political group of the Islamic Movement, to run for the Israeli elections. Ra’am had barely passed the 3.25 percent threshold of the election, winning 149,000 votes, just seven thousand votes above the threshold.

Abbas had split Ra’am from the Arab Joint List in January, which became the third and fourth-largest political bloc in the Knesset since 2015. Exit polls show that the Arab Joint List suffered a political blow after the low turnout of voters in Palestinian towns, only winning six seats compared to 15 seats in the 2020 elections.

‘Not committed to any bloc or any candidate’

In October, Abbas made his first step toward Netanyahu’s bloc and the Likud party, which has won 30 seats in the Knesset but still lacks a majority to form a government.

He has voted in the Knesset to block a parliamentary probe into one of Netanyahu’s corruption cases. He has been warm towards Jewish ultra-Orthodox parties, lambasting the Israeli leftist parties, saying that “What have I to do with the left? … in religious matters, I’m right-wing”.

However, Abbas affirmed on Wednesday that Ra’am is “not committed to any bloc or any candidate… We are not in anyone’s pocket, not on the right and not on the left.”

He said he had more in common with conservative Jewish ultra-Orthodox parties such as Shas and United Torah Judaism than with socially liberal parties such as Meretz.

“Most of the time, the Arab parties automatically are part of the left, without considering key issues,” Abbas told The Jerusalem Post.

 “I say this approach is mistaken and that we need to reposition ourselves towards the entire Israeli political spectrum and not one side.

“We are not in the pockets of the left or the right. We need to act within the interests of the Arab society that chose us,” he said. 

He has called for Palestinians inside Israel to be hired in senior and top posts in the public service, and also called for better housing, the recognising of villages in the Negev and he has criticised Israeli police inaction over tackling crime and armed gangs. 

On foreign affairs, Abbas supports the two-state solution, and he stood against the Israeli normalisation deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, saying that he did that “to protest that there is no peace deal with the Palestinians”.

He believes that “if there will be a real agreement with the Palestinians, there will be real agreements with 55 Muslim countries”.

Still, Abbas courted controversy in February after he called Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails “terrorists“. The Palestinian Authority (PA) condemned the comments, describing them as “embarrassing and shameful”, defending Palestinian prisoners as “symbols of ‎honour, heroism and pride”.

Leaning towards Netanyahu

In December, Netanyahu attempted to push for an Arab-Jewish partnership in a bid to win votes in Palestinian towns inside Israel. 

Abbas praised Netanyahu the following month, saying they had common grounds for dialogue, adding that “Since I want peace and Netanyahu does not want war, we could speak.”

This week, Abbas said his party was “looking for meaningful representation for Israeli Arabs” in a way that “can influence decision-making”.

When asked if he would join a government formed by Netanyahu or the opposition leader, Ya’ir Lapid, he said: “Whoever reaches out to us, we will work with them. I’m not ruling out that possibility.”

Mustafa Abu Sneineh is a journalist, poet and staff writer at Middle East Eye