Note From the Editor, Vivian Bercovici:
Former Israeli MK Einat Wilf is unfailingly warm, brilliant and positive. An intellectual iconoclast, she is razor-sharp in her analysis, dignified in bearing and seems to relish the challenge of sharp debate. She is also a formidable opponent.
If you have not yet read her book, "The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace," I recommend it highly.
With co-author, Adi Schwartz, Einat analyzes the malevolent political underpinnings behind the perpetually growing and recognized Palestinian refugee population. In doing so she also exposes the singular legal and political standards applied to Israel by the international community, in particular, the United Nations.
It is an honor and privilege to work with Einat at State of Tel Aviv. I am certain that you will enjoy reading her essay as much as I do all of her writing. As a contemporary advocate for the legitimacy of the existence of the State of Israel she is, truly, peerless.
I expect that you will learn much, as did I, from diving into this rich analysis of the inclusion of Arab political maverick, Mansour Abbas, in the “change” coalition currently governing Israel. And what this may portend for the future.
In June 2021 for the first time ever, an Arab political party, Ra’am, joined a governing coalition in Israel. Equally extraordinary is the fact that Ra’am, led by Mansour Abbas, is a conservative, Islamic party aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Supporters of the coalition, mainly from the Center and Left, praised what they saw as the fuller realization of a liberal Jewish state.
Yesh Atid leader and newly minted Foreign Minister Yair Lapid spoke of a “change to the history books.”
“The Arab public,” affirmed Labor party leader Merav Michaeli, “is part of Israeli society.” And Naftali Bennett, the new prime minister and head of the right-wing Yamina party, called Abbas a “unifier.”
In stark contrast, the right-wing opposition issued warnings of impending doom for the Jewish state. They assailed Abbas as a sly politician working to destroy the Jewish state from within. Benjamin Netanyahu (who had also courted Abbas when trying to cobble together a government) declared that the new coalition “will be celebrated in Tehran, Ramallah, and in Gaza, just as they celebrate every terror attack. But,” he warned, “this will be a national historic terror attack on the State of Israel from within.”
According to Netanyahu and his supporters, Ra’am and Abbas had not “accepted” the Jewish state, but merely changed tactics. Having failed to defeat Israel through decades of wars, terrorism, violence and global propaganda campaigns, Netanyahu asserted, Ra’am was spearheading an effort on behalf of Arabs and Muslims to subvert the Jewish state.
So – which is it? Real change as heralded by the Left? Or a sinister masquerade as characterized by the Right?
This question, clearly, is acutely important.
Abbas represents a radical break with decades of Israeli-Arab refusal to join an Israeli government coalition. Yet, his party is also loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the parent movement of Hamas and other sworn enemies of Israel.
Either way, the stakes could hardly be higher. The dilemma puts in sharp relief the two dichotomous possibilities: that Abbas’s politics represent the realization of the vision of pre-state Zionist thinkers or that the survival of the Jewish state is gravely threatened.
I. Mansour Abbas: “Israel is a Jewish state”
Unlike his predecessors, Mansour Abbas skillfully and genuinely dealt with challenges that made it otherwise impossible for Arab politicians to participate in governing coalitions. He openly acknowledged and accepted Israel as a Jewish state.
Faced with a wave of terror attacks this past spring, some of which were carried out by Arab citizens of Israel, Abbas’ repeated condemnations of these attacks contrasted starkly with signs carried by protesters at a Likud rally reading: “Abbas is a terrorist and supports terrorism against the Jewish state.”
Mansour Abbas, Drawing by Igor Tepikin
In the immediate aftermath of a terror attack on civilians in Hadera, Abbas said it was “a despicable display of ISIS terrorism that does not represent Arab society within Israel.” Israeli-Arabs, he said, “seek a dignified life within the rule of law and a value system that sanctifies human life. Arab and Jewish co-existence, and the values of peace and tolerance.”
As tensions and violence between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians escalated on the highly sensitive location of the Temple Mount and Al-Aqsa Mosque, Abbas very soberly addressed the situation, saying that while “the scenes at Al-Aqsa were very difficult, it doesn’t matter how it started or how it ended.” He added that he “put out a call for calm and to give [the mosque] its respect, to allow people to pray in peace.” Again, he wasted no time in making his statement.
Abbas was bold enough to raise the ante yet again when he stated clearly in December 2021 that: "Israel was born as a Jewish state. It was born that way and that's how it will remain... the question is how we integrate Arab society into it."
Such unqualified acceptance of Israel by an Arab political leader is unprecedented.
Nor was this statement a “one-off.” Again and again, Abbas made it clear that his goal was to deliver tangible results for his voters. “I want to maintain the hope for Arab society,” he said, “[that] we'll achieve our goals of full social equality and a society that is prosperous and a partner in decision making.” Indeed, during the one year of this government’s existence, substantial funds were allocated to many issues of particular concern to Israel’s Arab citizens, including infrastructure, education, and a significant reduction in violent crime.
II. Ze’ev Jabotinsky Predicted Mansour Abbas and the Iron Wall
The Zionist leader who most directly considered the issue as to whether Jews and Arabs could be true partners in a liberal democracy was Ze’ev Jabotinsky in his 1923 essay, “The Iron Wall.”
Jabotinsky was one of the foremost thinkers and leaders of early Zionism. He is perhaps best known for having founded the right-wing Revisionist movement which considered the exercise of Jewish power – militarily and politically – to be imperative if a nation was to be built. Jabotinsky was revered both by his political opponents, such as Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and by fiercely loyal followers, including his protégé and future prime minister, Menachem Begin.
Contrary to the caricature of early Zionist thought by its detractors, their vision for a Jewish state was never one of Jewish exclusivity. Whether it was Theodor Herzl, Jabotinsky, or the leaders of Labor Zionism, they all understood that ever since the Arab and Islamic conquests of the land in the seventh century, a large cohort of the local population was Muslim or Christian by religion and Arab by language and culture. All visions of the Jewish state included the Arabs of the land as equal citizens and governors of the Jewish state.
To the extent they differed, it was on how this vision would be realized. Herzl assumed, given that the Zionists’ intentions were to work and develop the land rather than exploit it, that the Arabs who lived in the sparsely populated and underdeveloped region would enthusiastically welcome the Jews.
Jabotinsky, however, recognized that regardless of the good intentions of the Zionists, the local population would resist a growing Jewish presence. Countering Arab resistance necessitated Jewish power. He questioned whether “peaceful aims could be achieved by peaceful means.” Only if the Zionists had the capability to repel such resistance – erecting an “Iron Wall” – would the Arabs of the land finally come to accept them.
While Herzl’s naïve assessment of “no resistance” was probably essential to mobilize the youthful optimism of the early Zionists, Jabotinsky articulated the practical imperatives for the movement to succeed. The establishment of a Jewish state, he maintained, necessitated the exercise of Jewish power.
Israel’s commitment to military, economic and diplomatic power derived from the Iron Wall theory. Herzl envisioned the path to a Jewish state. Jabotinsky envisioned the path to Arab acceptance of that state.
But even the more hard-headed Jabotinsky did not believe that the Zionists were destined to always live by the sword. Once the Arabs truly accepted the existence of the Jewish state, Jews and Arabs would govern together. On the other side of the Iron Wall, he believed in a highly liberal vision for the emergent state where “in every Cabinet where the prime minister is a Jew, the vice-premiership shall be offered to an Arab, and vice-versa.”
Ze'ev Jabotinsky, Portrait from Israel Banknotes
But Jabotinsky underestimated the magnitude, ferocity, and persistence of the Arabs' violent rejection of Zionism. When he first called for the mounting of an Iron Wall, there were about 10 million Jews in Europe and Asia and several hundred thousand Arabs in the land itself. Through immigration, he believed, the Jews would ultimately constitute the overwhelming majority in the fledgling state. (For this reason, Jabotinsky’s liberal vision of an alternating Jewish and Arab Prime Minister was not a vision of bi-nationalism based on numerical parity. It was still a vision of a Jewish state, just a liberal one.)
Jabotinsky could not have foreseen that the devastating convergence of the rise of Nazism, World War II and Arab violence in Mandatory Palestine would cause the British to choke off Jewish migration, at the most desperate time. This meant that millions of Jews, who could have otherwise immigrated to the embryonic Jewish state, were left to perish in Europe. The possibility of a Jewish majority in the entire territory allocated to the future Jewish state by the League of Nations Mandate, as envisioned by Jabotinsky and other Zionists, would be deferred, perhaps indefinitely. As a result, the Iron Wall would have to persist much longer than he had hoped.
Nearly a century after Jabotinsky wrote “The Iron Wall,” does Mansour Abbas herald its success? Has Israel’s continuous display of power finally caused its Arab population to accept its core identity as a Jewish state?
There is a parallel development in Israel’s relations with neighboring Arab states. The 2020 Abraham Accords certainly suggest that Jabotinsky’s model worked. This was the view set out by the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Mike Herzog, speaking at a JINSA event (Jewish Institute for National Security of America) in January 2021, stating:
It was only due to the uncompromising willpower behind the Iron Wall and Israel's refusal to bend the knee to its neighboring enemies that it later became an appealing partner for others in the Arab world against the mutual threat of Iran.
But does the same rationale also guide Israel’s Arab citizens and their political representatives?
III. The Curious Political Parallels of Israeli-Arabs and the Ultra-Orthodox
Upon Israel’s founding, two groups which did not share its Zionist vision became part of the state of Israel: the Haredi Ultra-Orthodox Jews and the Arabs living in Mandatory Palestine. Arab and Haredi political parties, nevertheless, were quick to grasp the importance of ensuring that they had political representation in Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, and became active participants in the democratic life of the Zionist Jewish state.
But while both Haredim and Arabs opposed Zionism, the relationship between Israel’s Jewish majority and its Arab minority was even more fraught. Following their defeat in the 1948 war against the establishment of Israel, Arabs were suddenly citizens of the new state they had just fought violently to destroy. Moreover, while Jews established themselves as a majority within Israel’s sovereign territory, they remained a miniscule ethnic, national, religious and linguistic minority in a region overwhelmingly dominated by Arab culture and Islam. Israeli-Arabs shared a sense of identity, belonging and cultural affiliation with the dominant Arab and Muslim nations of the region – which collectively remained sworn enemies of the Jewish state.
And so, while Israel’s Arab citizens had the right to vote and be elected to the Knesset from the outset, the continued ideological opposition of the Israeli-Arab population to the existence and legitimacy of a Jewish state and their identification with Israel’s mortal enemies, meant that for more than seven decades Arab political parties were not part of any governing coalition.
Haredi parties, like Israeli-Arabs, were ideologically opposed to Zionism, but because their opposition was never violent they were able to chart a different course to political participation, joining governing coalitions, serving as deputy ministers with ministerial authority (but not serving officially as ministers in the government until a recent legal ruling compelled one of them to do so). They were thus able to leverage their political representation in the Knesset to secure policies and legislation beneficial to their voters, without officially compromising their ideological opposition to Zionism.
It would take Israel’s Arab citizens more than seven decades to produce a political party that would follow the Haredi path of balancing politics and ideology. That party is Ra’am.
IV. A New Type of Israeli Arab Leader
In March 2021, Mansour Abbas broke with more than 70 years of Israeli-Arab political parties’ rejection of open political cooperation with Zionism. Instead, he ran on a platform echoing the traditional Haredi formula of seeking participation in Israel’s ruling coalition, if not its government. Abbas declared that he is “a man of the Islamic Movement, a proud Arab and Muslim, a citizen of the State of Israel who heads the leading, biggest political movement in Arab society. What we have in common is greater than what divides us.”
Abbas’ unprecedented political gamble paid off. He was able to clear the parliamentary threshold to command four seats in Israel’s 120-member Knesset. While that may not sound like much, Abbas had already announced before the final election results were in that he was willing to join any governing coalition – Left or Right. His party, he said, “was not obligated to any bloc or any candidate. We are not in anyone’s pocket, not on the Right and not on the Left.”
Abbas repeatedly made it clear that his goal – like that of the Haredi parties – was to deliver tangible achievements to his constituency. “I want to maintain the hope for Arab society,” he said, “[that] we'll achieve our goals of full social equality and a society that is prosperous and a partner in decision making.”
Abbas cemented his kingmaker position when he was seriously courted by Benjamin Netanyahu in the latter’s fourth, failed effort in two years to establish a governing coalition. This may have seemed counterintuitive – it was traditionally the position of the Left to support inclusion for Arab representatives. But Netanyahu’s signal that Likud also endorsed this approach was a game changer, opening the way to an unprecedented Right-Center-Left coalition that included Ra’am – and not Netanyahu.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Drawing by Igor Tepikin
Ironically, Abbas indicated that his party and constituents felt more comfortable with the conservative and religious coalition of Netanyahu than with the secular, LGBTQ+ supporters of the Left. "What have I to do with the Left?" he asked, pointedly. "In foreign policy we support the two-state solution, but in religious matters, I'm right-wing.”
Abbas further facilitated the process of Ra’am’s entry into the coalition by abandoning the traditional militant anti-Zionist stance of Israel’s Arab parties. Immediately after being elected to parliament, he quoted verses from the Quran in Hebrew, calling for the creation of “an opportunity for a shared life, in the holy and blessed land for the followers of the three religions and both peoples. Now is the time for change.” He adopted the Haredi message of caring for his constituents, leaving aside the conflict with the Palestinians.
All of which begs the question: Does Mansour Abbas’ personal conduct and the partial acceptance of Ra’am’s message among Israel’s Arab citizens confirm the success of Jabotinsky’s Iron Wall?
V. Is the Iron Wall Needed Forever?
Israel is closer today than it has ever been in its history to realizing the goal of full acceptance in a predominantly Arab and Islamic region. The Abraham Accords present a compelling alternative Arab-Muslim narrative, one that embraces the Jewish state as an integral part of the region rather than a foreign implant.
Similarly, Mansour Abbas has given political voice to the Arab citizens of Israel who seek true integration into the Jewish state. Those are the Arab citizens who are volunteering in increasing numbers to serve in Israel’s Defense Forces. Those are the Arab citizens who defend Israel in diplomatic forums and on social media against its detractors.
These developments reflect very real achievements of Jabotinsky’s Iron Wall. Many Arab Israelis do not seek the country’s destruction. They support and participate in its success.
But these achievements remain fragile. Abbas’ political rival among Israel’s Arab political leaders, Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List (an alignment of Arab parties), recently told young Israeli-Arabs not to join the “occupation forces.” Odeh described Abbas’ conduct as being “insulting and humiliating” and called on those who already serve in the security forces to “throw the weapons in their (the Israelis’) face and tell them that our place is not with you.”
Odeh represents a substantial number of Israel’s Arab citizens, if not its majority. This complex situation is best summed up by Abbas himself who, criticizing his colleagues, called on them “to not look at the half-empty cup but at what we have achieved so far.”
The Iron Wall, as applied through a century of the Zionist movement, has led to great achievements, but the process continues. The IDF will be needed for the foreseeable future, and the Jewish state must continue to be vigilant regarding those who would celebrate its demise, from without and within. Israel must insist that it be embraced as the Jewish state, rather than allow for the negation of this core principle of its nationhood. While positive signs of acceptance need to be celebrated, it would be unwise to ignore or explain away indications to the contrary.
Ultimately, Jabotinsky best combined the realism of necessary strength with a hopeful vision of peace based on Arab acceptance of the Jewish state. Those two goals – strength and peace – remain the twin pillars grounding the reality and vision of the Jewish state.
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Dr. Einat Wilf thanks Sam Hyde for his assistance in the research for this essay.