A New Strategy for Israel’s Arabs: Aiding Netanyahu

Israelis who follow Lucy Aharish on social media are used to her being a breaker of barriers. An Israeli Arab married to a Jew, she has been a significant presence as a journalist, newscaster – she interviewed Hamas officials and asked them why they use their own citizens as human shields – actress and political activist.

A few weeks ago, though, Aharish posted on her Facebook page an interview that was eyebrow raising in an entirely new way. She was interviewing, in Hebrew, Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Israeli Arab political party, Raam.

What was extraordinary was not only that two well-known Israeli Arabs, both of whom have long been critical of Israel’s treatment of that population, were having their conversation in Hebrew, clearly for the consumption of Israeli Jews. Even more striking was their discussion of why Abbas (who is not to be confused with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority), who as an Israeli Arab politician has long been associated with Israel’s political left, had chosen to side with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a recent Knesset fracas.

The issue was a purely procedural matter related to the investigation of Netanyahu’s possible involvement in a bribery affair related to Israel’s purchase of German submarines. But Abbas’s siding with Netanyahu’s Likud Party robbed the left of the opportunity to raise havoc over the proceedings, and it understandably shocked Abbas’s fellow Arab legislators, who despise the prime minister.

Shortly after, Netanyahu appeared at a hearing of a committee chaired by Abbas and examining ways of reducing crime in the Israeli-Arab community. It was not the sort of forum a prime minister would ordinarily attend. His presence was widely seen as a public recognition of Abbas’ support, which then led to murmurings among the prime minister’s right-wing base that he was abandoning a long-held principle of governments both right and left that Arab parties will not be included in political coalitions.

Netanyahu mostly ignored the criticism, knowing that, in the rapid news cycle, it would subside. Abbas, though, had no interest in shifting away the spotlight. He seemed intent on sending a message to Israeli Arabs, to their leaders, and possibly even to the leadership of the Palestinian Authority just over the border.

As he told Aharish, he was learning from the maneuvers of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, who play the political game and have squeezed concessions from successive Israeli coalitions, including budgets for their schools, draft exemptions for their young men, control over religion in the public square, and much more.

“My approach: I’m in nobody’s pocket,” he said. “Neither left nor right. My compass is in the ‘pocket’ of Arab society. That is to say, the resources and rights we deserve. My role is to do as much as I can to obtain them by mastering the art of political possibility.”

Adopting this sort of pragmatism would require a substantial change in the orientation of Israeli Arab political leadership, which has long shunned the Zionist mainstream just as much as the mainstream has shunned them. Abbas is telling leaders of the Arab Israeli political alliance, known as the Joint List, that his people are prepared to play the political game for the good of their own communities, and now want their leadership to change as well.

Abbas’s demonstration of support for Netanyahu is thus potentially significant in two possibly overlooked ways.

First, it is instructive that these faint glimmers of political partnership between Israeli Arabs and the Jewish mainstream began with the right.

Counterintuitive though it seems, it was almost bound to be that way. Only right-wing Israeli prime ministers have been able to make territorial compromise (Menachem Begin returning the Sinai to Egypt in 1979, and Ariel Sharon withdrawing from Gaza in 2005), because were the left to suggest it, the right would assail them.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Abbas’ willingness to offer a lifeline to Netanyahu, albeit on a merely procedural matter, should serve as another indicator to the Palestinian Authority that time is running out for the tactic that Palestinians have employed for more than half a century: Waiting for the rest of the Arab world to come to their rescue.

In the late 1970s, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat negotiated with Begin over the Sinai, he insisted that Israel grant the Palestinians some form of autonomy. Begin refused, and Sadat backed down; he signed the first Arab peace treaty with Israel having gained nothing for the Palestinians. Fifteen years later, when Jordan’s King Hussein made peace with Israel, he, too, demanded nothing substantive for the Palestinians.

Ever since, the Palestinians have banked on the U.S. assumption that, as for Secretary of State John Kerry famously put it, “there will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world” without the Palestinian question being settled.

But Kerry’s assertion has crashed on the rocks of a changed reality. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have normalized relations with the Jewish state. They paid lip service to the Palestinians, but again, made the deal while getting nothing tangible for them. This month, Netanyahu and the head of Israel’s intelligence agency flew to Saudi Arabia for meetings with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, another indication that the Saudis are also weighing changing their stance.

So it seems sensible for Israeli Arabs, too, to seek a different kind of peace with Israel’s ruling party. It is for now a tentative step, but Mansour Abbas specifically declined to rule out being part of an Israeli coalition. That means that he wants in, and the time will likely come, sooner or later.

As the Joe Biden administration begins to plan its strategy for the Middle East, some American Jewish groups – in yet another split with Israel on foreign policy issues – are hoping that Biden will undo some of Trump’s norm-smashing Middle East policy, even the changes that were intended to benefit Israel.

But Mansour Abbas gives us reason to wonder if that would be wise. The greatest hope for the Palestinian people lies not in the U.S. giving a lifeline to their longstanding but failed strategy, but in the Palestinians’ finally recognizing the inevitability of the Israel state and negotiating with it for the betterment of their own future – precisely as it seems Israel’s Arabs are now beginning to do.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book is “We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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