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Islamist Leader Toed a Controversial Line. Israel's Election Results Proved Critics Wrong

Mansour Abbas weathered a lot of criticism, but election results bear out his strategy, as the United Arab List leader's pragmatic, tight campaign and a helping hand from Netanyahu made him confound the pollsters

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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Mansour Abbas at his home in Maghar,a village in northern Israel.
Mansour Abbas at his home in Maghar,a village in northern Israel.Credit: Gil Eliyahu
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

When United Arab List Chairman Mansour Abbas announced in the early hours of Wednesday morning that his party had made it into the Knesset, contrary to exit polls in Israel's fourth election in two years, nobody in Joint List – the rival Arab political alliance Abbas was part of until the latest election cycle – was surprised.

The data flowing into Joint List's headquarters had also predicted that the Islamist UAL would win at least four seats in Israel’s parliament.

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Though voter turnout in the Arab community declined significantly, both parties achieved their goal of topping 52 percent of registered Arab voters to ensure both made it into the Knesset.

Abbas maintained an air of cautious optimism through the night, saying that he and his party officials knew their voters and were certain they would manage to cross the 3.25-percent electoral threshold. His optimism proved justified, and the depressed mood that prevailed in party headquarters after exit polls were published on Tuesday night gave way to cries of joy on Wednesday morning.

Abbas was the happiest of all, because his political survival rode on the outcome. Party officials and activists had already agreed that Abbas wouuld have had to step down as party leader had the UAL not made it into the Knesset.

Israel election 2021 final results.

“Look at what a gamble this was,” one veteran UAL activist said. “Unlike the Joint List and other long-standing parties, for us this was life or death, politically speaking.” He added that unless the final tally changes as remaining votes are counted, “Abbas can continue leading the party with no rivals.”

Indeed, Abbas doesn't seem to have any rivals elsewhere in Israeli Arab politics. Ever since Israel’s founding, socialist party Hadash – now part of the Joint List – has been the biggest Arab party in the Knesset. But this time, UAL seems to have taken the lead in terms of number of seats, as Hadash shares the seats the Joint List won with Balad and Ta'al.

With more than 95 percent of the votes counted, Abbas' UAL will have four seats in the next Knesset, compared to only three for Hadash.

Coalition with Kahanists 'not up for discussion'

How did Abbas metamorphosize from a politician who many were already eulogizing to the head of possibly the Knesset’s largest Arab party? For one thing, the party ran an unusually tight campaign. Every media appearance by Abbas or any other senior party official required prior approval from UAL’s public relations team, headed by strategist Iyad Khial, who knows Abbas since the birth of the Joint List in 2015.

Khial, who worked for the Joint List that year, had trouble controlling the party’s messaging due to the multiplicity of players. The Joint List was an amalgam of four parties, including UAL, and most of its officials and activists didn’t abide by campaign discipline.

This time, however UAL decided to follow a clear plan. Every interview or press statement was run by a small team headed by Khial before publication. And over the last month, the party almost completely stopped giving media interviews in Hebrew, fearing that any such interview could turn hostile and wouldn’t help increase its voter base.

UAL head Mansour Abbas is feted in his hometown Mughar for his party's success in this week's election.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

So far, UAL has refrained from saying who it would recommend to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to designate as the next prime minister. Abbas has objected to efforts to portray him as a supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and denies he has already made a deal with him. He said he isn’t pledged to any of the prime ministerial candidates, and that his guiding principle will be the Arab community’s interests, above all the problem of a rise in violent crime.

Abbas was willing to commit to one thing only – that he would adamantly oppose joining any government alongside the anti-Arab Itamar Ben-Gvir, who ran with Bezalel Smotrich's Religious Zionism party. “This is a sine qua non and it’s not up for discussion,” he said.

“But that doesn’t mean we’re now in the leftist bloc or getting there,” he added in a press statement on the eve of the election. “I’ve been in contact with the leftist leaders for a while, but I’m neither on the right nor the left. We’ll consider supporting anyone who moves toward us after the election and meets our demands on all the burning issues.”

More conciliatory, less conservative

The burning issues he refers to include repealing the so-called Kaminitz Law, which stiffens penalties for illegal construction, whose demise would make planning and building in Arab communities easier; recognizing the unrecognized Bedouin villages scattered through the Negev; and a five-year development plan for Arab towns. Abbas has conditioned any future coalition negotiations on these issues.

The party’s number two, Mazen Ghanayim, added this week that the UAL doesn’t rule out a referendum among its voters on whether to join any government that agrees to its conditions.

Abbas, 48, hails from Maghar, a town in northern Israel’s Galilee region. He has a degree in dentistry from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but for the last decade, he has also been cultivating a political career as a senior member of the southern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement. He is considered a student of the movement’s founder, Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish.

In 1997-98, while he was at university, Abbas headed the Arab student council, and even then, he was identified as someone with the potential to rise in the movement. At a young age, he was already giving sermons at a mosque in Maghar, where he adopted a more conciliatory and less conservative approach than the Islamic Movement’s northern branch, headed by Sheikh Raed Salah.

In 2007, Abbas was elected secretary general of the UAL, and within three years he advanced to the role of deputy chairman of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement. From there, his path was paved to becoming head of the movement and representing it in the Knesset. In 2018, Abbas ran for the leadership of the UAL Knesset slate, and was elected to succeed MK Masud Ghnaim. Party candidates for the Knesset are selected by its Shura Council – the equivalent of the Haredi parties council of Torah sages. According to the party’s constitution, its candidates cannot serve more than two full terms, or a total of eight years.

Abbas was not one of the supporters of the formation of the Joint List. When he was appointed chairman of the UAL, the Joint List split and he ran with Balad in the election for the 21st Knesset. The combined slate won just four seats in the Knesset. When the Knesset was dissolved in 2019 as new elections were called, Abbas was elected to the Knesset for the second time as part of the Joint List.

Throughout the campaign for the 22nd Knesset and after the election he was viewed as a rather gray politician, overshadowed by Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh and the Ta’al chairman Ahmad Tibi. He was a party to the decision to recommend Benny Gantz for the premiership, but the bitter disappointment over Kahol Lavan’s joining the Netanyahu government led Abbas to change his approach. He adopted the position that Arab parties do not necessarily need to be identified with the center-left camp, and said he’d be willing to negotiate with anyone who would advance the interests of his voters.

Abbas expressed his opposition to laws concerning LGBTQ rights, including legislation to ban conversion therapy – and put the issue at the top of the public agenda. This position drew him closer to the Prime Minister’s Office, and led to an exchange of massages with Netanyahu. Reports appeared for a few weeks about understandings reached between the UAL and Likud, in which UAL MKs were absent during a number of Knesset votes, aiding Netanyahu’s coalition.

Contacts between Abbas and Netanyahu peaked recently when Netanyahu participated in a session of the Knesset special committee on eradicating crime in the Arab community, which Abbas chairs. Party officials say Abbas has stretched the concept of pragmatism to the very edge in his willingness for dialogue with Netanyahu. But the party and Shura Council have kept a lid on releasing any word of criticism of Abbas.

When the last Knesset, the 23rd, was dissolved last year and a new election was called, Abbas and the UAL chose to emphasize their differences from Hadash, Ta’al and Balad, the rest of the Joint List; which led to the UAL splitting off in preparation for the campaign. Now it seems that Abbas has earned credit for scoring a major achievement: Five Knesset seats for his party, which would make him a dominant player in the political arena – and in deciding who will be prime minister.

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