Internal Rift Over Potential Collaboration With Netanyahu Threatens to Sink Arab Party

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Joint List members leave a meeting with Kahol Lavan at the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 31, 2020.
Joint List members leave a meeting with Kahol Lavan at the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 31, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Joint List Knesset member Mansour Abbas, who chairs the party's United Arab List faction, said Tuesday that the party might disband if it does not adopt his political approach.

“If the Joint List takes the path that I am presenting, then there's a chance it will continue to exist,” Abbas told Channel 20. “If the Joint List reverts to the same mistakes, the same positions, which do not bring good news for Arab society, it loses its justification to exist.”

The Joint List is a coalition of four mainly Arab parties: communist Hadash, left-wing Ta'al, Palestinian nationalist Balad and the Islamist United Arab List. Abbas heads the latter faction of the precarious slate.

In the many interviews that Abbas has given recently, he has not ruled out possible cooperation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This has stirred fierce criticism within his party; in conversations with Haaretz, senior Joint List members have said that Abbas is "causing tremendous damage with this conduct."

The Joint List's Mansour Abbas in his Knesset office, September 2020.Credit: Yehonatan Samiya / Knesset

Officials in the prime minister’s Likud party have said that they think it’s possible to enlist Abbas’ faction, splinter the opposition in the Knesset and prevent the passage of legislation targeting the prime minister, who is currently on trial on corruption charges.

Netanyahu is also taking advantage of this widening rift, as well as the normalization accords with several Arab countries, to deepen divisions within the Joint List.

The interview that Abbas gave to Channel 20, which is aligned with Netanyahu, has widened those rifts even further. Member of the Joint List’s Balad faction were furious not only over Abbas’ remarks, but that he chose to grant an interview to a right-wing television station in the first place. Balad chairman Mtanes Shehadeh accused Abbas of serving the prime minister’s interests.

“Is it coincidental that he chooses to announce the dissolution on the settler channel, the Netanyahu channel?" Shehadeh said. "It’s true that Mansour was my partner, but that changed when he switched sides and got close to Netanyahu." He added, "Abbas is not suitable for leadership. We will take it from here.”

Knesset member Heba Yazbak, also of Balad, tweeted in response: “The Joint List represents an entire public that chose its political platform and its political path. Someone who chooses to cooperate with racist and oppressive forces at the expense of this political platform is the one who loses his justification, abandoning his public and abusing the power that they have given him.”

Knesset member Aida Touma-Sliman, of the Joint List’s Hadash faction, said on Wednesday that she “feels a little embarrassed that there is still anyone who believes that it is possible to get anything good out of the Netanyahu government.”

Touma-Sliman said that it was the increase in Knesset seats won by the Joint List that kept Netanyahu from forming his ideal coalition after three inconclusive elections. "I can understand that Netanyahu would want to break up the Joint List or splinter its power because we threaten him, but for someone to come from our home and lend a hand to that is unforgivable.”

Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh confronts Netanyahu during a Knesset session, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

In an interview with 103 FM, she added, “We are talking here about cooperation with the country’s No. 1 racist. He wants to continue the policy of occupation, settlements and the exclusion of the Arab population, and now they talk about embracing him? It is unacceptable. We are not the ones who have strayed from the Joint List’s path.”

Asked whether the Joint List would break apart, she replied, “We want to continue so that we can use our political power to bring down this right-wing administration, and we will do everything to remain. Anyone who doesn’t accept this fundamental mission has apparently chosen a different path himself.”

Abbas was also interviewed by the radio station, and said that he was not leaving the party. “I want to strengthen the Joint List in the way that I think is right,” he said.

“We have always been in the left wing’s pocket. We recommended Gantz twice, who ultimately did what was good for his people and his party,” Abbas said, referring to the Joint List’s recommendation that Benny Gantz be tapped by the president to form a government instead of Netanyahu. “I think the correct path is saying that we are not in anyone’s pocket.”

He added, “There are issues on which I find myself on the right wing – social issues, issues of religion and state." When asked whether he was prepared to support Netanyahu, he replied that, “Any proposal that comes will be put on the table. We’ll examine it, consider it and then decide.”

Over the past two weeks, Haaretz has learned that several prominent Israeli Arab figures have made attempts to calm tensions within the Joint List. They include the chairman of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, Mohammed Barakeh, and Mudar Younes, the chairman of the National Council of Arab Mayors.

Their efforts fell flat, however, and the atmosphere within the party is stormy. Sources within the list have said that shouting is a regular occurrence in Knesset faction meetings and discussions between the slate's four factions.

Party activists who have spoken to Joint List Knesset members, including less senior members of the parliamentary faction, also attested to a chilly atmosphere. They explain that Abbas has inflicted major damage to the Joint List’s future electoral prospects, based on recent opinion polls showing it losing three to five of its 15 seats.

“Likud and Netanyahu don’t need to do anything,” said one senior Joint List official. “Even if the Joint List doesn’t break apart, it’s already apparent that there has been a significant drop in support. We are experts at self-destruction.”

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