The Islamist Disruptor of Israel: MK Mansour Abbas Speaks
Israeli-Arab MK Mansour Abbas speaks with Attila Somfalvi about Jewish-Arab partnership, Israeli politics, Arab society & being an Islamist in Israel
Note From the Editor, Vivian Bercovici:
On November 1, Israelis go to the polls for the fifth time since 2019 and State of Tel Aviv has exceptional material today and coming up over the next few months.
This week, Attila Somfalvi does a deep dive with Islamist MK Mansour Abbas, with whom he had a long discussion recently – just days before the Knesset imploded.
Abbas is very candid about his highs and lows, stripped of all sentimentality. Politics is about power and he wants the Arab Israeli community to receive what he sees as its rightful slice.
He has had a taste of success and will settle for no less. Abbas is much more excited by bridges and roads than the finer points of halacha and conversions.
Abbas may control just four of 120 Knesset seats but his influence on Israel is and will continue to be far greater, proportionally. Attila unscrambles this paradox with his characteristic thoughtful precision.
In this barnburner of an interview, they get into the tough stuff, in detail: the experiment of a Jewish-Arab political partnership; on being an Islamist political leader in a Jewish state; the brass-knuckled arena of Knesset survival; and Abbas’ quite groundbreaking recognition of the Jewish character of the state of Israel.
“In ten years I will not be in the Knesset.”
Mansour Abbas, leader of the Islamist Ra’am party, let that bombshell slip at the end of a lengthy conversation recently.
“My family needs me. I left them at a very delicate time.”
For someone who led a historic disruption in Israeli politics, this statement sounds out of place, almost forced. To have achieved so much and muse about an exit?
In political life, “taking time to be with my family” is often code for: I have to step back and strategize my future positioning. But, ten years in politics is an eternity; in Israeli politics it’s akin to several centuries.
Abbas is a complex character, full of surprises and contradictions. On the one hand, over the past year he has become one of the most powerful and influential politicians in Israel. On the other, while he yearns for recognition, it is not his primary motivation. Being a minister, for example, is less appealing to him than having a behind-the-scenes impact on the issues that matter to Israeli-Arab society.
As it happens, I met with Abbas a few days before then-PM Naftali Bennett's dramatic announcement that his “change government” was to be dissolved. In the early weekday afternoon, the restaurant in Kfar Kassem (an Arab town in the center of Israel) was quiet. When Abbas entered, the wait staff bowed their heads; people stopped to greet him. The Ra'am (United Arab List) Party chairman appreciates the respectful gestures from Arab Israelis, the constituency he represents, and on whose behalf he led what is possibly the most revolutionary change in Israeli politics since 1948.
Abbas, very boldly, severed his Islamist party from the bloc of Arab parties in the Knesset. He crossed the floor, so to speak, taking his power into the heart of the Jewish Zionist establishment: the government.
[Abbas] declared that the Palestinian conflict interests him less than the sewage problem in Arab villages. He became a friend and fan of prominent right-wingers like Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett; and he stated that the Holy Land does not belong to Muslims, Jews or Christians at all – it belongs to God.
That political experiment has ended, for now. After a turbulent year of countless dramas, the change government formed by Bennett, Yair Lapid and their associates, together with Mansour Abbas, collapsed in on itself. One by one, its members defected, like detached pieces of a rocket ship drifting into space. One time on the right, one time on the left. One time a Jew, one time an Arab. Eventually, the rocket ship crashed and shattered into fragments.
As we sat talking in late June, the future of the coalition was not yet entirely clear. Abbas said that he would do everything possible to prevent the dissolution of the government, while hedging and adding that he would be willing to sit in any future Israeli government.
For Abbas, being a member of the coalition has become his raison d'être. This is what he offers his constituents; this is what he wants to sell to the public. Power, inclusion and progress.
Dr. Mansour Abbas, 48, a dentist by profession, chose the rough and tumble of public life and, within one year, had totally disrupted the paradigm of Israeli-Arab politics that has prevailed since the founding of the state.
Mansour Abbas, Drawing by Igor Tepikin
Abbas rejected the conventional wisdom that had the Arab parties sitting perpetually in opposition. As the leader of an Islamist party with strong ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Abbas proclaimed – with two Israeli flags behind him – that Israel is the state of the Jewish people.
He declared that the Palestinian conflict interests him less than the sewage problem in Arab villages. He became a friend and fan of prominent right-wingers like Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett; and he stated that the Holy Land does not belong to Muslims, Jews or Christians at all – it belongs to God.
The enigmatic Mansour Abbas, I saw quickly, is a very polished, sophisticated and complex political player.
On Jewish-Arab Partnership
Dr. Abbas, were you hurt by the headlines shouting that the Jewish-Arab experiment has failed? Did they offend you?
“In some cases, when they said the experiment failed, it was like someone was hurting my child. To that extent. I took it personally. This is a baby that I have consistently nurtured, and suffered for on a personal level. And yet, I moved on. So yes, it did hurt.”
But even you agreed that perhaps it's too hard and too complex. That it’s too early to lead this process between Jews and Arabs. Where do you think you were wrong?
“There are many things you realize along the way. For example, the incident with the Shura Council [the highest political body of the Ra’am Party, which convened during Ramadan at the height of the clashes between Muslims and Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa Mosque to decide whether Ra’am should remain in the government]. “It was too much to tell the people, the Jews, that the Shura Council was running things. That wasn’t right. I realized later that it was unwise, especially during Ramadan and the clashes.” 
Today the Israeli right is attacking you and branding you a supporter of terrorism, even though Netanyahu conducted very advanced negotiations with you a year ago. Can you no longer cooperate with Likud?
“I’ll give you an answer in principle: After all the attempts to unite the Arab parties with the center-left bloc, I understood that it wouldn’t work. We made this attempt with Benny Gantz, but the political reality did not allow it. Even Yair Lapid said that this was only a ‘one-time use’ of the Arab parties for the purpose of forming a government. After the efforts to form a government with Blue and White failed, I came to the conclusion that we would have to try another way. Then the talks with Likud began, and my goal – and that is what was on the table with Likud – was to bring about a coalition agreement. You need power to drive change. The Jewish-Arab partnership is the force that will bring about change. In all of the parties, they first talked about change, and then about a Jewish-Arab partnership in the coalition.”
“Bennett, Lieberman and Sa’ar – all three were to the right of Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu, right? Today everyone agrees that they’re to the left of Likud and Netanyahu. What brought them there? The partnership. Sitting together with Mansour Abbas. And what do we want from Bibi and Likud? For them to undergo a change as well. How do I get them to change? If I become his partner, then the change will happen.”
But you will no longer be willing to be a mistress, a secret, covert partner?
“It’s the process itself. At first, we had secret talks with Blue and White. Then, the second time, we entered the hall, and there was a picture taken of us with Blue and White people, and it was publicized that negotiations were taking place. This government already has a coalition agreement, so are we going to go backwards? Go back to the benches? No. We're already in; we’re partners. We're not going back. I want to be a full partner. This is how I exercise my citizenship; I ignore all the laws that suggest that I’m a second-class citizen.”
“Bennett, Lieberman and Sa’ar – all three were to the right of Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu, right? Today everyone agrees that they’re to the left of Likud and Netanyahu. What brought them there? The partnership. Sitting together with Mansour Abbas.
On Israeli Politics
There’s an extreme left in Israel, there’s an extreme right and there’s also a determined center. You seem to be an extreme pragmatist.
“True. I am. I’m always managing two situations – how to influence Arab public opinion and how to influence Jewish public opinion. And it’s very difficult to speak and maintain a level of credibility when you speak both Arabic and Hebrew. Both here and there. I am a politician, at the end of the day, and it's not easy. I'm sitting with you, but I understand that these words can be in Hebrew, Arabic or English. I'm coherent with myself and at peace with myself, and my pragmatism really comes from faith. I feel that when I behave in this way and try to promote what I’m trying to promote, I am fulfilling a religious deed.”
The Israeli far Right accuses you of being an imposter, of having conspiratorial plans to destroy a Jewish Israel. Bezalel Smotrich, chairman of the Religious Zionist Party, says that you trouble him more than Ahmad Tibi or Ayman Odeh.
“There are people who certainly have suspicions, and I accept that and understand it. I try to deal with it, and always try to build trust and be honest with myself as well. I want to do things I believe in, so as not to appear as a play-actor. But what bothers Smotrich is his fear that I will succeed. Because if I succeed in the efforts I’m making, it will lead Arab voters to the polls en masse, and then it upsets the balance and jeopardizes the possibility that the right will form a government. Smotrich sees only his political interest.”
He does have something to worry about in such a case, because if the Arabs come out to vote, and your number of seats increases, then he assumes you would only go with the Israeli left.
“In Arab society, like in Jewish society, there is a right and a left; Arabs may have a tendency to vote for the Arab Democratic Party, but not all of them share this tendency. Jews in America, too – thirty percent of them tend to vote Republican. Who said all Arabs should be on one side? When we were on the Joint List, we had advantages. We were together, we won more seats. But what was the problem? Once everyone is together, on one list, we’re painting everyone with the same brush. Everyone takes the most radical personality on the list, and, through that person, brands everyone. Because of the process I led, today Jews see the mosaic in Arab society, the variation. I think Jewish society sees that there is a mosaic, that the picture is complex, that there are differences even within Ra’am, my party. Tibi or Bibi's formula will no longer work, because what about Mansour Abbas? So they try to put me into the equation as well. That's how they create the conspiracy about me.”
“What bothers Smotrich is his fear that I will succeed. Because if I succeed in the efforts I’m making, it will lead Arab voters to the polls en masse, and then it upsets the balance and jeopardizes the possibility that the right will form a government. Smotrich sees only his political interest.”
On Israeli-Arab Society
When did you realize that Arab society was ready for change, that the Arabs were ready to take part in government?
“For many years, Arab society has been torn between two identities: civil and national. And whenever there’s a security incident, Arab society is pulled between the two sides. Arab society wants to integrate, wants the state to reach out and help it out of its troubles. The most significant turmoil was last year, during Operation Guardian of the Walls, and it almost brought us to a civil war. I was afraid of that. For me, it was an alarming, distressing development. But it was precisely these events that made the process I began irreversible. The difficult scenes we witnessed in the mixed cities told me: Mansour, this is it. Go all the way. My trip to the synagogue in Lod symbolized this. I had never been to a synagogue before in my life. That was my first time. And there, I realized that there was no going back.”
And still, Arab society finds itself dealing with a complex identity, given the Palestinian issue.
“Look, once the Arab public realized that there is no political solution within the borders of 1948, that this is the State of Israel, that there is no partition plan, there are only the borders of 1967, if that – most Arabs have internalized this, the reality. There is an attempt to reverse the process, but the Arab public understands what’s happening. It has an inner strength that says: Friends, this is the reality. We need to take care of ourselves. And the messages from the Palestinians to the Arabs in Israel are clear. They tell the Arabs: You’re on your own, figure it out yourselves. Israeli-Arab society is suffering. It has problems; there’s a crisis. Even today, parts of Arab society, and most of Jewish society, don’t understand how painful the epidemic of crime and violence in the Arab sector is. You don’t know that the citizens live in fear, that every sound at night gets us out of bed, that our children have to experience bursts of gunfire inside our communities. People are being murdered; the criminal organizations are taking over our lives. It’s humiliating. The growth of the criminal organizations is partly due to their control over the gray and black markets. There are billions there.”
Are you not afraid that you’ll be targeted by them?
“I have no choice. Someone needs to talk about it. They are aware that they will be eradicated. I’ve received threats. And implied messages. But they recognize that today I am a man of power, I’m not someone on the sidelines. So they’re deterred by the establishment. If they target me, I don’t think the state will take it lightly.”
Do you see yourself in the mirror as a man of power?
“Yes, I see myself as a man of power. I talk to the prime minister, the defense minister, the foreign minister. I don’t make it into a big deal.”
With whom is it harder for you to get along these days – your friends Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi? Or Lieberman, Ayelet Shaked and the right?
“I have a hard time with Tibi, because we are not on the same page, and not even in the same book. This year has left major scars. Our political paths are different. Look, we always identified Ahmad Tibi as someone who would lead this process of partnership. But he didn’t, nor will he. I am a black swan. By the way, Yair Lapid tried to unite us, me and Ahmad Tibi. I told him: Yair, it’s not going to happen. Ahmad Tibi is far from this; he’s not able to do it. And this is why I came to the conclusion that the Joint List Party does not have a worthy political path. In fact, there is no need for this party. I want a party with fewer seats but with a political path, the aim of which is not just to bring more seats but rather to advance processes. Everyone shifted this year. Lieberman will never be able to say the word ‘transfer’ again to Mansour Abbas. He would not be able to utter such a phrase. He actually says positive things to Arab society.”
“Look, once the Arab public realized that there is no political solution within the borders of 1948, that this is the State of Israel, that there is no partition plan, there are only the borders of 1967, if that – most Arabs have internalized this, the reality.
On Being an Islamist in Israel
There’s a significant dissonance between your different layers. The average Jew looks at you and gets confused: On the one hand, you’re an Islamist, a religious believer, and on the other hand you stand in front of the Israeli flag, recognize the Jewish state, and don’t want to talk about the Palestinians. And yet, not everyone believes you.
“There is no doubt that this is the issue in this election. Integration. Equality. This is the story. We either go forward with it, and I have already said that I want to be in any coalition formed in Israel, or we go backwards. I have no doubt that the Likud will wage war against me. This will help us in the Arab sector, but it depends on how you navigate it. The question is where will the voters go with their anger and frustration – towards indifference or to the polls? Will the Arabs say: Netanyahu wants to discount me, exclude me – but I want to exercise my Israeli citizenship. And then the results will be different. As for me, the point is this: I am not a communist, nor a liberal, nor a Zionist, nor a Meretz man. The power of the process I am leading is the fact that I am from a movement that is ‘forbidden’. The Islamic Movement. The Muslim Brotherhood. ISIS. Al Qaeda. In the eyes of the Jews, they are all one and the same. This is what is in people’s consciousness. But the fact is that I managed to get out of this pit and succeed. This shows what power there is in this process. I am in a place of power. A religious Muslim, an imam, an Islamist party – there is no one like me in this place. Everything I do is examined from a religious perspective.
How did it happen that 21st-century Arab society, with so many successful people in all sorts of fields, is still characterized by such severe violence?
“The state does not exist in Arab society. Governance does not exist. The police do not exist. The police do not exist in the sense of the rule of law, and the state does not exist in the sense of providing services. Governance is not enforcement. It is the rule of law, and within that is enforcement. The state is not there. It’s not sufficiently present to compensate for the collapse of Arab society; this is a structure that would have supported it and protected it from the phenomena of violence and crime. We have lost our internal order, and we have not benefited from order provided the state. I speak about governance and the rule of law resolutely in Arab society. I connect it to something religious. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, says that the ability to control people's behavior via the ruling sultan, the rule of law, is stronger than control via the Koran and obedience of its laws. The Koran is just a book. If nobody makes it an active thing, it remains passive. That is why we need the rule of law. After the state admits this failure, I can come to Arab society and say: We must admit that we have failed; we must exercise self-criticism of our culture. Blood revenge is a culture. Don’t you talk about culture, leave that to me.”
How dangerous is violence and crime in Arab society?
“The crime and violence brought me to a point at which I realized that the state needed to be brought in. My experience in conflict management led me to understand the other, the complexity of the problems, of the conflicts. Violence and crime are the most dangerous things for Arab society; it's true ‘pikuach nefesh’ [the primacy of saving a life in Jewish law]. It’s a real danger.
We’ve already said you’re a pragmatist, but when one listens to you, one hears that you are also a humanist. Another internal contradiction in the figure of Mansour Abbas.
“People don’t understand where I come from. Let me tell you a story: In my village, in the mosque, I hosted a delegation of American senators who were visiting with AIPAC. They asked me where I got my opinions, my thoughts, this process that I’m leading. Behind me were two verses from the Koran. I translated them. The purpose of Islam, the way I perceive it, is mercy. To bring mercy to all people and all worlds. But how do we do that? The second verse describes the story of mankind: ‘We created you from man and woman, and made you into tribes and nations so that you may know one another. The noblest among you are the most Godfearing.’
The conclusion is firstly that we are all one family, all of humanity. This is a family that has a duty to maintain the bonds within it. Raham [‘merciful’ in Arabic]. It’s from the root Rahma. In Hebrew, Rahamim. Mercy. And secondly, we are different. Tribes, peoples, parties, sectors, nations. So, on the one hand we are one family, and on the other hand, within the family there is all this diversity.”
When people say that you support terrorism, does it make you angry?
“It hurts me.”
Did putting the Israeli flag behind you a year ago feel natural to you?
“I had two flags. In Nazareth I had the green flag of my party. And in the Knesset I had the blue and white flag. Here you have an identity, and there you have an identity.”
Or you're pretending.
“No. I am at peace with myself. You don’t understand that. I have not become a Zionist and I will not become a Zionist. But I am at peace with myself, and I know that this is the State of Israel, the Jewish state. And this comes from an understanding of a process, of a historic worldview that everyone has the opportunity presented to them. In my view, this property called land – I do not accept the nationalist perception that it’s ours and that’s it. For me, the one who owns this land is God. He puts whoever he wants here. He will put someone else here tomorrow.”
How do you explain that within the Islamic Movement, and the Muslim Brotherhood, you are so different?
“There’s a difference between the Islamic religious outlook and the views presented by the Islamic movements. Most of the discourse among the Islamic movements is influenced by the national discourse. In this sense, Islam has become a prisoner of the national interest. I sever the connection with the national interest. But I can’t ignore this context, so the question arises as to how it is possible, through this humanist, religious outlook, to regulate and control the national tension and bring it to fruition.”
I have not become a Zionist and I will not become a Zionist. But I am at peace with myself, and I know that this is the State of Israel, the Jewish state.
Finally, let's talk about people. Who surprised you the most?
“Lieberman – I can pick up the phone and call him, and he understands what I need. What matters to me, in this regard, is one sentence that he said to me that led me to trust him ever since. We were at the first meeting among the party leaders about the budget and all that. And the professionals there gave a presentation, and then he, as finance minister, gave an overview and said: We will maintain all of the coalition commitments in the budget. And someone said: What commitments? And Lieberman said: Mainly the ones we made to Ra’am. We will fulfill all of our commitments, as promised. We agreed on a 30-billion-shekel five-year plan? That's what’s going to happen. Now all that remains is to overcome the bureaucracy.”