Arik Rudnitzky, project manager of Tel Aviv University's Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation and a researcher at the Israeli Democracy Institute, spoke to an April 5 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about Mansour Abbas, an Israeli Arab Islamist who has emerged as the "new political star on the Israeli political landscape."
Abbas, "a dentist by profession ... an Islamist by orientation and ... a gentleman in his personal conduct," is the leader of the United Arab List, the political wing of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel known in Israel by its Hebrew acronym, Ra'am.
The four-decades old Islamic Movement in Israel is the Israeli franchise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although it entered the "social and municipal arena" during the 1980s to help the Arab community with basic needs, said Rudnitzky, its main aim is to "Islamicize" Arab society in Israel. In 1995, the movement split between a southern faction advocating participation in Israeli elections and a northern faction determined to boycott the electoral process. Abbas belonged to the former, the "only Islamic movement active now" after the Israeli government in 2015 outlawed the northern faction, charging it with incitement to violence and collusion with the Palestinian Hamas terrorist organization.
In 2018, Ra'am held a general assembly to craft a charter outlining its outlook and goals. The charter endorsed wasatiyyah, "the moderate Islamic stream in Islamic jurisprudence," and fiqh al-aqalliyyat, a body of Islamic jurisprudence introduced in the 1990s meant to improve daily life for Muslim communities living as a minority among non-Muslim majorities and help them "better integrate" into existing political and civil systems, while preserving their Islamic religious observance.
In 2019, Abbas led Ra'am into elections with a campaign focused on three priorities: (1) Eradicating the problem of crime and violence in predominantly Muslim Arab communities, (2) Gaining recognition for the unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev, and (3) Implementing a five-year development plan to improve the status of the Arab community. While other Arab parties gravitated toward political extremism and rejection of mainstream Israeli society in recent years, Ra'am does not try "to challenge ... the nature of Israel as a Jewish state," focusing instead on civil issues and the needs of Arab voters.
Abbas chose to have Ra'am contest the March 2021 elections alone, rather than joining other Arab parties in the Joint List, and declared his willingness to join any Israeli government coalition that met his policy demands, even that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (a position supported by most Ra'am voters according to pre-election survey conducted by the Adenauer Program at Tel Aviv University). Abbas's pragmatism paid off, and Ra'am managed to win four seats to the Joint List's six, an extraordinary feat for a single Arab political party.
Ra'am's position as a leading Arab political voice appears solid.
With neither of Israel's two main political coalitions controlling a majority of Knesset seats, Mansour has become a potential kingmaker. Recently, Abbas gave a speech in in Nazareth directed at the Jewish public that was well-received. Speaking in Hebrew, Abbas sought to prepare Jewish Israelis for "the possibility of an Arab party playing a significant role in Israeli politics ... for the first time in the political history of Israel."
Whether Ra'am will join or support a new government as Israel faces the prospect of a fifth round of elections remains to be seen, but either way its position as a leading Arab political voice appears solid, said Rudnitzky. "Islamic sentiment is always in the hearts of the people," which ensures that the "popular and social and even political base of support for the Islamic Movement is almost guaranteed."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.