“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.
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.