A Pleasant Illusion by an Impressive Israeli Arab Politician

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas in Tel Aviv.
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

The magic trick was a bit hard to resist. Journalist Raviv Drucker spent an hour sketching a portrait of Mansour Abbas on Channel 13 TV, and Abbas kept impressing, charming and inspiring trust. This man, balding and thickset with his old-fashioned suit, seemed like an antihero in all aspects: an unmodern Arab man, a devious not-terribly-eloquent politician, a political operative who passes at best as chairman of the labor council in Maghar, his home village. He’s the dentist you wouldn’t let anywhere near your teeth.

But this Arab religious conservative was revealed as the opposite of all these stereotypes. It seemed that even Drucker, the wise analyst who has already seen and despised everything, was beside himself with affection and appreciation. Abbas tells the Israeli viewer: It’s not what you think. It’s not what they told you. I have something else to offer you.

Abbas cracked the stereotypes more than a thousand leftist op-eds would, and he’s not even a leftist in the least. He’s been smashing stereotypes for months. What seemed fleeting glory, 15 minutes of fame for nothing, became reality. Benjamin Netanyahu phones him, Naftali Bennett takes him aside for tête-à-têtes, Yair Lapid comes courting, Ayelet Shaked consults him, the Shura Council overshadows the once-almighty clerical councils of the Jewish religious parties.

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Politicians who have never met an Arab who wasn’t serving them hummus, fries and salad thought they were once again getting a vote bundler or a collaborator – and suddenly saw a revolutionary before them. Ahmad Tibi is infinitely more impressive, modern and eloquent than Abbas. Ayman Odeh is more persuasive, trust-inspiring and just. And the more senior Abbas, Mahmoud, is supposedly much more important than Mansour. But this drab Abbas is destined to make a change. I’m not sure I like this change, but you can’t help being impressed with its potential achievements.

Abbas offers a new deal – a deal not easy to stomach for Arabs or justice-seeking Jews. But those dreaming of a single democratic state – without the two-state babble or the disgrace of apartheid – will find this deal hard to resist. The deal simply states: more money rather than freedom, more budgets rather than slogans, more houses rather than words, more jobs rather than statements. Sixty-five years later, the Arabs are reclaiming the General Zionists’ iconic election slogan: Let us live in this country.

Abbas will be far more palatable to the Jews than the freedom fighters, who should have inspired far more respect than him. He proposes to forget about his brothers and sisters who are trampled under the boots of the occupation, in return for improvements for his brothers and sisters who hold Israeli citizenship. Abbas even forgoes the lip service. You won’t hear him proclaiming and preaching like most politicians.

Maybe that’s why he generates more trust than they do, even while admitting that he prevaricates when needed. Abbas is the new Arab Mapainik. Dunum by dunum, goat by goat, tower and stockade. He’s not a Seif al-Din al-Zoubi, a Knesset member from the late ‘40s to the late ‘70s who submissively decorated collaborationist satellite slates, or of course Azmi Bishara, he of the righteous and utopian “state of all its citizens.”

What to do about Abbas? It’s no simple thing – certainly for those who believe in justice, freedom and equality – to relinquish some of these dreams for a somewhat better present. It’s not easy to be enthused about Abbas, soon to become the hero of so-called enlightened Jews. Politicians like him go down far easier and make it easier to hide their hypocrisy. The heart says: Mandela, not Abbas. Marwan Barghouti, not Abbas. Fight, don’t compromise.

It will end, once again, with a victory for Zionism, which is Jewish supremacism, convinced in its ability to deceive the natives with trinkets and keep them quiet. Abbas makes its task easier. But in a reality short on hope, where justice fades in the face of Jewish racism and nationalism, in a reality where the government of Bennett, Gideon Sa’ar and Lapid is the chief joy of the left and the occupation is pushed off the agenda, doubts begin to gnaw: Maybe Abbas, after all? Even if only for now.

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