Mansour Abbas is the most important figure to arise in Israeli politics. He’s the man of the hour. As an Arab Israeli, he challenges not only Israelis – Jews and Arabs alike – but also the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza.
He told journalist Mohammad Magadli in Hebrew last week what other Palestinian leaders have refused to declare for so long: “The State of Israel was born as a Jewish state, and the question is how we integrate Arab society into it.”
His comments provoked harsh criticism both from Arab politicians – in the Joint List and his own party, the United Arab List – and from the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza. But Abbas didn’t fold. He didn’t “wish to clarify” or “put things in context.” He doubled down on what he said in Hebrew and previously in Arabic (in an interview with the Nazareth-based newspaper and website Kul al-Arab). Like a real leader.
For years, the paradigm that the road to peace in the Middle East passes through the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has held sway in Israel and abroad. Benjamin Netanyahu sought to switch to another paradigm: The Palestinians can be bypassed and regional peace pursued without resolving the local conflict. Within these two paradigms, the status of Arab Israelis has been stuck at the end of the historical line. Abbas turned this paradigm on its head, putting Arab Israelis at the top of the Palestinian agenda.
Did Netanyahu see in the distance some form of a Palestinian state – “autonomy plus” or “state minus” – as he talked about in his 2009 speech on a two-state solution at Bar-Ilan University? It doesn’t really matter because his goal was to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu’s father revealed in an interview with Channel 2: “Benjamin doesn’t support a Palestinian state unless it’s under conditions they would never accept. I heard this from him.”
Abbas may only represent Arab Israelis and not even all of them. Still, his willingness to accept the mother of all demands – recognition of Israel as a Jewish state – is significant because it could reveal the Israelis’ true face.
Generations of Israelis have been great at talking about how they seek peace but the Palestinians don’t want two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, but rather a Palestinian state alongside a binational state. These Israelis’ evidence: “They’re not willing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.”
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What will the opponents of peace, supporters of the status quo or of greater Israel do now? Abbas might yet reveal their inherent opposition to peace, which doesn’t depend on the Palestinians filling of one condition or another.
Abbas believes that you have to change to produce change, and he is changing and is changing reality before our eyes. Therefore, he has positioned himself as a relevant leader in Israel, more so than Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi, and as an agent of real change, more so than Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar.
It’s no surprise that he mentioned his bodyguards in the interview and talked about personal danger. Abbas is the most dangerous leader for opponents of peace and reconciliation, both in Israel and in Palestine. And we all know how peace-seeking leaders in the Middle East are repaid.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in his speech at the United Nations this fall that his government, which “started as a political accident, can now turn into a purpose. And that purpose is unity.” That statement reminded me of Fidel Castro, who is quoted as having said: “Men do not shape destiny. Destiny produces the man for the hour.”
Who knows if out of this political pileup that was probably caused by Netanyahu’s slamming of history’s brakes, destiny has produced not just one man to meet the needs of this hour but maybe two.