Person of the Year? Islamist Leader Has No Real Influence on Israel's Strategy

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United Arab List chairman Mansour Abbas in the Negev amid protests over tree-planting on land used by Bedouin, Sunday.
United Arab List chairman Mansour Abbas in the Negev amid protests over tree-planting on land used by Bedouin, Sunday.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Just before we headed into 2022, there seemed to be a consensus in Israel that Mansour Abbas was person of the year, at least in politics. That perception followed the United Arab List chairman’s conciliatory rhetoric and huge progress toward recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.

Officials in his party couldn't conceal their joy – never had anyone in Israel’s Arab community attracted such adulation, they said. Everybody was following his every political move. Person of the year? Maybe of the decade or century.

Every Arab leader, from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the United Arab Emirates' Mohammed bin Zayed needed to consult with him. And Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh of the Joint List had to make major efforts to accomplish a fraction of what Abbas had achieved. But it’s a new year, the celebrations are over, and we’ve returned to reality.

Abbas can give and receive every possible compliment and embrace but he can’t budge the country’s mainstays. Events of the past week showed that.

Legislation being pushed by Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked that would reinstate the so-called Citizenship Law preventing Palestinians who marry Israelis from obtaining residency permits was backed by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. And amid warnings of the demographic and security threat such family unifications pose, the bill will also pass in the Knesset.

In the Negev, plans that had been sitting in the files of the Jewish National Fund for years were retrieved and bulldozers were dispatched – shockingly – to the Bedouin electoral stronghold of Abbas' United Arab List. There are 12 million dunams (4,633 square miles) in the Negev, but the government considered it important to plant trees where the Bedouin Al-Atrash tribe lives.

The police have been parroting phrases they received in briefings: The Negev protest is a provocation by extremist and nationalist figures. It’s as if tens of thousands of people hadn’t been living in tin shacks and subjected demolitions and evictions every day, only deciding now that they were suffering.

The drama regarding the Citizenship Law and the disturbances in the Negev should be coupled with efforts at a plea deal that would end former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial. His departure from politics would boost the prospect that his Likud party and others would join the government or form an alternate one. United Arab List officials know their political influence would disappear at the first opportunity. After all, they’re still Arabs.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently visited Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the former IDF chief of staff, at his home. Immediately after the visit, apparently for show, Gantz heard from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid that  the peace process has no chance to get moving.

The Palestinian president, who is 85, has long understood the game. Your affability toward the Israelis gets you concessions and headlines, perhaps even a visit by Israeli leaders to your Muqata headquarters in Ramallah, but it will never get you close to a diplomatic agreement. Quite the contrary. Over the past decade, Israel has curbed the Palestinians’ living space in the West Bank. The 1967 borders look like a pipe dream.

The conclusion is clear: All Mansour Abbas and Mahmoud Abbas can get in exchange for conduct acceptable to the Jewish-Israeli consensus is for Israel to throw sand in their face. In other words, there’s no historic development here but rather an asymmetric power relationship where the weak flatters the strong to extract a few concessions.

If that’s the case, Mansour Abbas can only become man of the year if the criterion for being chosen is having no influence on Israel’s strategic decisions. If change is to come, it will only come from the strong side of the equation. The Jewish majority has to recognize the weak side’s demands and rights and act accordingly.

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