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After a Turbulent Year, Mansour Abbas Still Has a Strong Grip on Islamist Party

Mansour Abbas was elected to head the United Arab List for another term, despite his insistence on remaining in a controversial coalition

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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UAL Chairman Mansour Abbas at the Arab community finance conference in July.
UAL Chairman Mansour Abbas at the Arab community finance conference in July.Credit: Gil Eliyahu
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

The results of the United Arab List primary held on Saturday prove that chairman Mansour Abbas still has a firm grip over the party, despite the harsh criticism aimed at him over the past year, both within the party and in the Arab community.

While the UAL constitution allows every UAL lawmaker to complete two full terms before stepping down – which gives Abbas and other party member more freedom in their choices – the events of the past year, especially the party joining the coalition, led to quite a bit of criticism and pressure on him to abandon ship.

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Some of the key events of the past year were the clashes at the Al-Aqsa Mosque between Muslim worshippers and security forces in April and May, the killing of the journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jenin in May, and the ascent of Jews to the Temple Mount and the Flag March in that same month. Earlier in the year the party also had to deal with tree-planting on Bedouin land in the Negev which lead to clashes between local residents and the police, and the passing of the controversial Citizenship Law.

Abbas and the UAL found themselves under attack, from within the party and from the public, which demanded the party leave the coalition. While Abbas did lead a move to freeze the UAL’s participation in the coalition in April, he was in no hurry to truly break away.

Abbas faced several turning points which offered him the chance to walk away from the coalition, and his insistence to stay and keep going down the path he took, dubbed "the new road", led to calls within the UAL to oust him.

Abbas managed to maintain his strength and control over the party with the help of key figures who are among his supporters. In the primary elections on Saturday, Abbas was the only candidate for chairman, and won 85 percent of the vote in the party’s central committee.

The committee also approved that MK Walid Taha retain his seat in the Knesset by a large majority, after he placed second on the party roster, with MK Iman Khatib-Yasin placing fourth. The real battle was over the third slot on the list: Walid Alhuashla, the chairman of the UAL’s central committee and a close associate of Abbas, won 63 percent of the vote, proving the latter's power of the party. The rest of the list will be determined next month by the party’s institutions.

The UAL has already said that it will not enter a joint ticket with other parties, but it won't rule out bringing new people from outside the party, despite the bitter experience it had with MK Mazen Ghanayim last year.

The party is considering bringing in another figure from the Negev region to the top five slots on the roster, and are looking mainly at the city of Rahat, which is a key reservoir of votes for the UAL.

The UAL hasn't hidden the fact that the recent events in the Gaza Strip, and the expected visit of Jews to the Temple Mount on Sunday, would have been much more embarrassing were the Knesset still functioning with the UAL as part of the governing coalition.

Nevertheless, the continuation and escalation of events in the coming days will be challenging from the party's perspective. On Saturday Abbas posted in response to criticism that although he opposes war and harm to innocents, his party has no impact on Israel’s foreign affairs and defense policies, and anyone who says otherwise “is selling illusions to the public.”

Abbas explained that this was the reason the party didn't join the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and refrained from voting on such issues. "We decided to be part of the coalition and not of the government, so as not to be partners in decisions involving war or any tough decision for the Arab citizens,” he said, adding that “we are prepared to be part of a decision on calm and peace; our job as MKs is to take care of the issues that directly involve the Arab public and their rights.”

After the primary results were announced on Saturday, Walid Taha took to social media and expressed a more decisive position than Abbas. “The policy of assassinations, the oppression and the continued aggression that all Israeli governments over the years have adopted against besieged Gaza and our Palestinian people in general, have not brought and will not bring security and stability to the region,” he wrote. “The blood of the innocent Palestinians in Gaza and everywhere cannot be the fuel that serves the political goals of the parties in Israel, and this government must take its hands off of Gaza and stop this insane war,” he added.

Meanwhile, Balad, which is part of the union of parties which makes up the Joint List, held its primary elections on Saturday as well. Sami Abu Shehadeh, who was the only candidate for party chairman, won the post. Former MK Mtanes Shehadeh, was elected second on the roster, running against the representative of the Bedouin Negev communities, Joumah Azbarga. Balad wants to ensure that two of its candidates are placed high on the Joint List roster. However, for now it seems that they will receive only one place out of the first six. Senior figures in Balad told Haaretz that they do not rule out running separately if talks with Joint List leaders run aground, although they realize that this could be perceived as political suicide.

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