Guest essay: Palestinian member of Knesset embraces dual identity

By Tunku Varadarajan

Mansour Abbas (Illustraion by Barbara Kelley for Wall Street Journal)

Many Arab politicians in the Middle East and beyond were equivocal in criticizing Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Not Mansour Abbas. “The massacre,” Mr. Abbas said on Nov. 6, “is against everything we believe in, our religion, our Islam, our nationality, our humanity.” He has also rejected the idea that Israel practices “apartheid” and has declared that “the state of Israel was born as a Jewish state, and it will remain one.”

Mr. Abbas, 49, heads the United Arab List, a political party that holds five seats in the Israeli Knesset. Mr. Abbas is a retail politician. What he wants most is a better life for Israel’s 1.9 million Arab citizens. He wants Bedouin villages in the Negev “regularized,” their houses fitted with “Israeli levels” of electricity and sanitation. He wants money for Arab schools and hospitals and, most of all, for measures that would reduce crime. In 241 of the 299 nonterrorist murders committed in Israel in 2023, both victim and perpetrator were Arab.

Mr. Abbas made history in June 2021, when he became the first Arab to join an Israeli governing coalition. After an indeterminate election left Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unable to form a government, the United Arab List’s support enabled the conservative Naftali Bennet and liberal Yair Lapid to establish a coalition, which governed until December 2022.

Mr. Abbas had earlier discussed joining a coalition with Mr. Netanyahu, but the Religious Zionist Party of Bezalel Smotrich balked at joining a partnership with Arabs, and Itamar Ben-Gvir called Mr. Abbas a “mechabel,” a terrorist. Messrs. Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are now finance minister and national security minister, respectively. Mr. Abbas has soured on Mr. Netanyahu and wants him to resign.

“I’m trying to be part of the political system in Israel as a representative of the Arabic citizens,” Mr. Abbas says in an interview in his Knesset office. He describes himself as having a “national identity” as an “Arabic Palestinian” and a “civil identity as a citizen in Israel.” He says fellow Israeli Arabs should “actively implement their Israeli citizenship” and become “part of the solution of the problems they face, and not just be the opposition.”

Mr. Abbas, a chubby former dentist, is an unlikely game-changer. “I used to do crowns, fillings, and root canals,” he says almost sheepishly. Making him yet more improbable as a catalyst for reconciliation, his politics are Islamist. His party represents the moderate and democratic “southern branch” of the Islamic Movement in Israel. The movement, founded by his mentor, Sheikh Abdullah Nimar Darwish (1948-2017), split in two in 1996, the “northern branch” continuing on a path of militant anti-Zionism. Darwish, who once sought to establish an Islamic state in Israel, spent time in prison for acts of terrorism in the early 1980s. After his release in 1985, his politics evolved rapidly toward nonviolence, culminating in an acceptance of the Oslo Accords.

Mr. Abbas’s conciliatory attitude has earned him enemies on both sides. The Palestinian Authority’s ruling Fatah faction accuses him of “throwing himself into the arms of Zionism.” The Jewish hard right views him as an Islamist Trojan Horse intent on subverting Israel from within the Knesset. Mr. Abbas says that’s bunk. “We are a local movement,” he says, “based in Israel. We consider ourselves citizens of Israel, and we’re working in Israel between two systems of rules—the rules of Islam, and the rules and laws of Israel, as a country and as a state.” (Fidelity to Islam can be seen in the list’s fierce opposition to gay rights.)

His party is “committed to Israel’s Knesset,” and he says, “At least 2,000 Jewish citizens voted for me in the last election. I hope there will be more in the coming elections.” In November Mr. Abbas called on one of his own legislators—Iman Khatib-Yassin, the first hijab-wearing woman in the Knesset—to resign after she denied that Hamas raped women and murdered babies on Oct. 7. She apologized and kept her seat.

To his admirers, Mr. Abbas is the most gutsy, pragmatic and stable home-grown Arab politician in Israeli history. A prominent professor who has served as a back-room adviser to several Israeli prime ministers says: “Abbas is the genuine article. Arab politicians usually speak with seven corners of their mouth”—a local idiom for untrustworthiness—“but with him, what you see is what you get.”

On Gaza, he sounds like a mainstream Western politician: “We want to see the war stopped, a prisoner exchange deal completed, and the kidnapped persons returned to their families.” There must be “international recognition” for an “independent, sovereign Palestinian state that gives hope to the Palestinians and works to rebuild the Gaza Strip and address the phenomenon of the spread of weapons among Palestinian factions.” He would entrust security in the strip to Arab countries.

Israeli Arabs, for their part, “have to be careful in choosing our words,” Mr. Abbas says. “You have to be careful not to make a link between the events of Oct. 7 and the historical conflict itself. . . . If you say the word ‘but’—‘but there is a conflict and the Palestinians are under occupation, et cetera, et cetera’—this will be understood as a justification for the criminal actions of killing people, of kidnapping people.”

“This is not just a tactical position,” he says. “When we talk of Oct. 7, ‘but’ is not an ethical word.”

This essay first appeared in the Wall Street Journal

2 thoughts on “Guest essay: Palestinian member of Knesset embraces dual identity”

    1. You are right that being pro-peace in that neighborhood is dangerous. Sadat was assassinated for making peace with Israel by Egyptian extremists. Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the Oslo accords, was assassinated by an Israeli extremist.

      Just a few months before Rabin was assassinated, Bibi Netanyahu, protested Rabin’s peace efforts by prominently leading a mock funeral procession complete with coffin and featuring a hangman’s noose where the demonstrators chanted, “Death to Rabin”. Despite being warned of plots on Rabin’s life, and being asked to tone down the protest’s rhetoric by Israeli internal security, Netanyahu refused. Other protests included depictions of Rabin in the crosshairs of a gun and in a Nazi SS uniform. Of course Bibi denied that he intended to incite violence. To back that up later, he rejected far right-wing demands that Rabin’s assassin be freed (yup, it’s true), probably because only a tiny, tiny minority actually favor that.

      By at least some reports, Arafat rejected Israel’s offer of a Palestinian state, because if he had, he would have been sure to be assassinated. It is a sad thing that trying to make peace is so dangerous in that part of the world. It takes more personal bravery than advocating war.

      Bravo for Mr. Mansour Abbas.

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