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Mansour Abbas, Get It Together

Raviv Drucker
Raviv Drucker
מנסור United Arab List chairman Mansour Abbas.
United Arab List chairman Mansour Abbas.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Raviv Drucker
Raviv Drucker

United Arab List chair Mansour Abbas has good reason to be frustrated. No other Israeli politician has been through what he’s been through. All of the players have put him at the top of their hit list: Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi, Likud, Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir – even Hamas.

When Al Jazeera broadcasts the Flag March in Jerusalem, they focus their coverage on Abbas. As if to say that if his United Arab List party were not in the coalition, no cabinet members would have been at Damascus Gate singing “May your village burn” and “Mohammed is dead.”

“How can we withstand all these forces?” a senior UAL figure asked me rhetorically, and rightly so. Later, he sent me photos from a session of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, whose chair is UAL lawmaker Walid Taha.

“We convened on our own, without a single representative of the Interior Ministry, even though the meeting had been scheduled in advance. Interior Minister [Ayelet] Shaked in effect is telling us: ‘Debate among yourselves, I don’t even see you.’ As if to say, “Even [other members of] the coalition don’t really help us against all those who rise up against us to destroy us.”

All of this is true, but Abbas is making an enormous mistake that could render meaningless all of his heroic efforts of the past 18 months. According to his original vision, as soon as it joined the coalition the UAL was supposed to gain a reputation as the Arab equivalent of Shas. We have to prove that our voting in the Knesset can be trusted, that we can be trusted, Abbas argued.

In fact, the party failed the first test of that thesis: the first vote of the newly formed Knesset, that of confidence in the new government. MK Saeed Alkharumi, who died in August, announced that he would abstain.

The UAL was in an uproar. Alkharumi nearly begged Abbas to protect him from the anger that erupted, particularly in the Shura Council of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, the advisory body of religious leaders that also governs the party. At the time it appeared to be labor pains, a period of adjustment after more than 70 years in the opposition.

One year later, little is left of Abbas’ vision. There are too many issues on which the UAL refuses to vote. There’s no point even discussing LGBTQ rights; decriminalizing marijuana possession or legalizing recreational use is beyond the pale; changes to the military conscription law are tough; scholarships for combat veterans are problematic and now, there’s even a question mark hanging over a routine vote on extending the emergency regulations applying Israeli law to settlers in the West Bank, which everyone knows must be passed.

Again and again, the UAL becomes addicted to the dynamic of “The Shura Council will convene.” It’s a dynamic that will kill the will of any future prime minister to be dependent on this party. It isn’t the Arab Shas, it’s close to the defunct Tzomet party.

Even worse, this behavior causes the coalition irreversible damage and greatly strengthens Ben-Gvir, Smotrich and Benjamin Netanyahu. There’s a reason Naftali Bennett took a step back from the UAL and put Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid in charge of dealing with the party.

Nothing hurts the prime minister and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar more than the notion that their fate is in Abbas’ hands.

How different is this from all the Israeli governments, most of them right-wing, that were dependent on Rabbi Eliezer Schach or the Council of Torah Sages? Not very, but to the credit of the Haredim it must be said that they learned how to calibrate the crises they created: not every week, like the UAL.

None of what I’ve written here is likely to be news to Abbas. He understands the damage well, but his control of the party is not absolute. The UAL is democratic in a way that nearly recalls Likud and the Labor Party of yesteryear: a plethora of forces that suddenly gained importance and attention they never imagined having.

The greatest absurdity is that with all the talk surrounding the issue, the real justification for the UAL’s joining the coalition almost disappeared: It has brought such a bonanza of socioeconomic spending for its voter base that all sides are trying to downplay some of the achievements, to keep them from becoming propaganda ammunition for Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir.

If the UAL doesn’t get a grip and change direction, Abbas will become a tragic hero. Not only did he pay a heavy political price for joining the coalition, but with his own two hands he will poison his new brand so thoroughly that no leader who values his life will want to go near it.

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