Israel’s March 2021 parliamentary elections and those scheduled for the Palestinian Authority on May 22, 2021, in the West Bank have focused international attention on two Arab leaders: Mansour Abbas, leader of Israel’s United Arab List faction (Ra’am), and Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and chairman of its ideological “parent,” the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Although Mansour Abbas and Mahmoud Abbas share the same family name, they are unrelated. They also diverge in their approaches to their local constituencies, Israel and the Middle East. Dr. Mansour Abbas, a 46-year-old dentist from northern Israel and chairman of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement, scored a dramatic electoral victory in securing four seats in Israel’s March Knesset elections. He ran on a platform of cooperation, integration and normalization, breaking with decades of Arab party nationalist and Islamist rejectionist rhetoric against Israel.
Instead, Mansour Abbas publicly declared readiness to join an Israeli right-wing coalition headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In contrast, Mahmoud Abbas, the longtime leader of the PLO, Fatah and chairman of the Palestinian Authority, running for reelection in May after 16 years of a four-year term, is still campaigning with the hard-line, anti-Israel, anti-normalization messages that have characterized his Fatah party for decades.
Israel’s internal ‘Abraham Accords’?
Mansour Abbas’s unilateral reset mirrors the spirit of the Abraham Accords and creates an internal “Abraham Effect” on Israeli Arab politics. Abbas appears to have moved Arab politics from years of political and ideological rejectionism and inflammatory rhetoric against Israel. Instead, Abbas has chosen a pragmatic, issue-oriented approach to tackle pressing security, social and economic challenges within Israel’s Arab communities.
The political context and complexity of the “Ra’am Phenomenon”
Abbas’s prime-time television Hebrew address on April 1 reflected an unprecedented outreach by an Arab politician to the Israeli public, particularly the political right. Abbas said that he would “courageously champion a vision of peace, mutual security, partnership and tolerance between the peoples.”
Abbas’s move was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Several months earlier, in a December 2020 interview, Abbas said, “Our failure is due to lack of self-criticism.” Abbas also noted the urgency of addressing economic and social crises in the Arab sector that required political pragmatism to solve. Abbas’s campaign avoided incendiary default statements on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—that had characterized the Israeli Arab political leadership’s rhetoric for decades, including the April swearing-in of Knesset members. Instead of pledging allegiance to Israel, Joint Arab List faction MKs used the platform to condemn Israel as an “apartheid, racist, occupation state.”
Abbas’s successful campaign responded to growing frustration in the Israeli Arab community. Since 2007, the Israeli Arab middle class has grown significantly. Israel’s nearly two million Arab citizens have increasingly sought economic and political integration, with 63 percent of Israeli Arabs supporting Arab parties joining an Israeli coalition government. Ra’am’s emphasis on grassroots, day-to-day issues attracted a broad and varied voter base despite the faction’s Islamic brand. Ra’am succeeded in attracting a wide electoral base, including young people, Christians, secular Muslims and Bedouins who voted for their pragmatic solution-oriented approach over Islamist and nationalist sloganeering. Israeli Arab political analyst and activist Joseph Haddad noted that Mansour Abbas positioned Ra’am as the Jewish ultra-Orthodox Shas Party of Israeli Arab politics.
Abbas’s new approach surprised Israel’s political class, triggering a debate among commentators regarding his intentions, motivations and goals: Was he communicating a sincere desire for Israeli-Arab integration, or was he employing a recognized strategy of political Islam based on penetrating a sovereign state’s political system to achieve Islamic ideological goals? Some viewed Abbas’s outreach with trepidation, comparing Abbas’s political approach to power to Turkish President Erdoğan, the Hamas leadership in Gaza and Iran’s Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Some have argued that Ra’am and its fellow Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel’s more moderate approach compared to the militant and radical Northern Islamic Movement still threatens Israel’s Jewish majority character. Some of Abbas’s Arabic-language post-election references to fellow Arab leaders seemed to confirm these suspicions. However, notably, his rhetoric and overall public declarations have avoided “hot button” issues such as Islam, the Palestinians, Jerusalem, Hamas, “apartheid” and occupation, unlike Joint Party List leaders such as Dr. Ahmad Tibi, Azmi Bashara, Hanin Zoabi and Ayman Odeh—all of whom are known for their diatribes against Israel.
Abbas had also developed friendly working relationships with senior Likud members, including Knesset speaker Yariv Levin, who had partnered with Abbas to counter violent organized crime in the Israeli Arab sector, a key agenda item for Abbas’s constituency. Levin had also reached out to Muslim members of the Knesset when in 2020, he blessed them in fluent Arabic in honor of the Eid Al-Fitr holiday in an unprecedented move.
Shifts in the Israeli Arab body politic
The electoral success of Ra’am reflects a broader-based societal shift in the Israeli Arab sector. Two polls in early 2020 indicated a growing Israeli-Arab identity as opposed to a Palestinian-Arab identity that had more commonly characterized Arab citizens of Israel.
In parallel, the coronavirus pandemic emphasized the equality between Israel’s Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. Media coverage of close cooperation between Jewish and Arab medical caregivers created a sense of unity during a national crisis. Additionally, Israeli Arabs got vaccinated months ahead of other Arabs in the Middle East, including Palestinians under P.A. governmental authority.
The shift to issue-oriented Arab politics had picked up momentum over the past six years. President Reuven Rivlin had also proposed a “shared society” program in 2015 to help bridge the divide between Jews and Arabs. In 2015, the Knesset passed an unprecedented social and economic investment plan for the Arab sector in Resolution 922, earmarking 10 billion shekels ($3 billion) to train teachers, build water and sewage pipes, renovate public buildings and subsidize employment. Although the plan generated high expectations, robust budgets prompted organized crime groups to take over development projects.
In recent years, the Arab public’s priorities have changed. They have placed the Palestinian issue lower on their agenda, prioritizing their own needs, such as fighting violent crime, employment discrimination and allocating budgets for local infrastructure, health and education.
Since 2010, organized crime has risen sharply in the Arab community. In 2019 alone, 15 Israeli Arab mayors and their families were targeted by gunfire, firebombs and car bombs by crime families vying for control. In 2020, there were 96 homicides in the Israeli Arab sector, an all-time high.
In response, Arab MKs proposed a 5 billion shekel ($1.5 billion) anti-violence legislation. The program included stiff penalties for illegal weapons possession, additional police stations, proposals for protecting the integrity of public bidding for projects, scholarships for Arab students, more Arab police officers and encouraging young Arab citizens to perform National Service.
However, Israel’s ongoing parliamentary crises in 2019-2020 stalled the Arab development plan. Abbas filled the political vacuum, reiterated its urgency, and recalculated his political approach.
Arab disenchantment with its Knesset leadership also increased Arab public support for Zionist parties. Notably, the nationalist Likud faction won more votes in the Arab sector in the 2021 elections than the left-wing Meretz and Labor factions combined (21,403 opposed to 21,714 for Likud).
The growing support for Likud and other Zionist parties in the Arab sector did not occur in a vacuum. Abbas had developed friendships with several Knesset members from the right-wing Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu parties, with whom he regularly conversed in Arabic. Abbas even expressed appreciation to hawkish nationalist transportation minister Bezalel Smotrich, who had helped Abbas solve longstanding traffic infrastructure problems near two large Israeli Arab towns in Northern Israel. Abbas, who served as Deputy Speaker of the Knesset under Speaker Yariv Levin of Likud, noted right-wing Knesset members’ readiness to solve Israeli Arab issues, which served as an impetus for Abbas to respond in kind to their outreach.
Rahat mayor and Abbas ally, Faiz Abu Sehban, noted that Ra’am’s readiness to align with the political right in Israel reflects its conservative values, similar to those of Jewish ultra-religious parties, as opposed to the liberal, progressive agenda that defines the Israeli political left.
Abraham Accords’ ‘ripple effect’?
The Arab world’s normalization of relations with Israel via the Abraham Accords has helped foster a more open environment both in the region and Israel to encourage Arab-Israeli relations. The Abraham Accords have provided new opportunities for Israeli Arabs through business and trade with their Arab counterparts. The United Arab Emirates launched a $10 billion technology fund for investment in Israel, and Israeli Arabs have increased their participation in the high-tech sector. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, an architect of the Abraham Accords, initiated a program in Nazareth to advance Israeli Arab high-tech entrepreneurs.
West Bank Palestinians, aware of the Abraham Accords’ positive effect on economic and political relations, have grown increasingly disillusioned with P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas and the PLO leadership. While Israeli Arabs and Jews explore new opportunities with Bahrain and the UAE, Palestinians find themselves wedged in by Mahmoud Abbas’s hard-line anti-normalization platform. As the authors noted in their November 2020 policy brief, the Palestinian leadership has radicalized and isolated itself from Israel, much of the Arab world and even the Palestinian public.
Khaled Abu Toameh noted that the 2021 Palestinian general elections—if held—feature Mahmoud Abbas’s hard-line campaign messages which reject peace and normalization with Israel. The radical PLO faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and the Islamist Hamas movement are still dedicated to destroying Israel and “liberating Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.” P.A. leadership still preaches boycotts to the detriment of its citizens and continues to pay families of “martyrs,” referring to Palestinians who carried out terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. Notably, Marwan Barghouti, incarcerated in Israel since 2004 and serving five life terms for planning and executing deadly terror attacks that killed four Israelis and a Christian cleric, is a leading candidate to replace Mahmoud Abbas.
As normalization progresses between Israel and the Arab world, including Sudan and Morocco, Mahmoud Abbas’s promotion of BDS policies and his outreach to terror-supporting regimes, such as Turkey and Iran, only isolate the Palestinians more among critical Arab countries, specifically Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Moreover, Mahmoud Abbas’s misguided policies have dealt a blow to revive the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, setting back normalization prospects. Abu Toameh points out that, “It seems that Palestinians who support terrorism and do not accept the two-state solution are headed toward dominating the next Palestinian parliament and government.”
The P.A.’s anti-Israel policies, particularly its boycott of the $50-billion investment program as part of the Abraham Accords 2019 economic workshop in Manama, Bahrain, contrasted sharply with Arab normalization with Israel and growing Israeli-Arab normalization within Israeli politics.
P.A. policies of radicalization and self-isolation have not been lost on the Palestinian public. The P.A.’s arrest, detention and mistreatment of Palestinian participants at Bahrain’s 2019 “Peace to Prosperity” workshop prompted defiant responses by some in the Palestinian private sector. “We are being pursued and threatened,” complained a Palestinian businessman. “All of us are in a precarious position. Why is it that people working on advancing peace and building a better future receive this type of treatment?”
Despite the Palestinian leadership’s radical policies, the “Abraham Effect” on the Israeli Arab community and the Abraham Accords between Arab states and Israel have established precedents and pathways for Palestinian normalization with Israel. While largely unnoticed in Western policy circles, Palestinian Israeli normalization and economic cooperation have taken root. Since 2005, normalization between Palestinians and Israelis in Area C of the West Bank has flourished in 15 industrial and commercial zones, providing a career path to some 40,000 West Bank Palestinians who work together with Israelis under identical conditions and receive the benefits and protections of Israeli labor and social security laws.
The Area C industrial and commercial zone economic program represents a proven, sustainable and productive model for economic, social and political normalization between Israelis and Palestinians. This bottom-up economic normalization approach is a necessary precondition to top-down political agreements. Many Palestinian employees in these zones hold senior and managerial positions in Israeli companies and factories, where they are offered equality of opportunity and full economic normalization close to home.
The P.A.’s Mahmoud Abbas, on the other hand …
Mansour Abbas’s positive politics of normalization and integration contain lessons for Palestinian leadership and discourse. However, it appears at present that Mahmoud Abbas remains stuck in the past. Young West Bank Palestinians have expressed dissatisfaction with the 86-year-old Abbas and Fatah’s intransigent and ineffective politics and called on him to resign, as reflected in a late 2020 Palestinian poll.
Some moderate Palestinian leaders think creatively and can offer the Palestinian public a positive vision and a pragmatic approach to a better future. Presently, this seems an unlikely scenario given the P.A.’s poor democratic track record.
Potential moderate and pragmatic candidates remain primarily silent in Palestinian politics. Those who have attempted to change the Palestinian discourse have been shunned by their own families, while their economic wellbeing and even their lives have been threatened. The Palestinian leadership and its loyalists do not tolerate public criticism or effective opposition.
While Israel’s Abbas and his Ra’am Party have exhibited signs of political adaptiveness to the democratic demands of a broadening Arab constituency in Israel, the ideologically immutable P.A. leadership demonstrates intractability, further isolating itself from the Palestinian public, the Arab world and the Israeli people. At present, there does not seem to be a West Bank equivalent of Mansour Abbas running for the P.A. leadership. However, Mansour Abbas’s influence may have opened a veritable Pandora’s box for the Palestinian leadership.
Regional and local political pressure may soon force P.A. politicians to follow the trend of normalization with Israel that today characterize Arab state relations with Israel, Israeli Arab relations within Israel, and increasingly, economic ties between West Bank Palestinians and Israelis.
Dan Diker is a foreign-policy fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at IDC Herzliya.
Khaled Abu Toameh is a veteran award-winning journalist who has been covering Palestinian affairs for nearly three decades. He studied at Hebrew University and began his career as a reporter by working for a PLO-affiliated newspaper in Jerusalem. He currently works for the international media, assisting foreign journalists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.