Josef Olmert

Mansour Abbas talked: Who listened?

Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Islamic Movement and the United Arab Party already scored one big victory-he is the first Arab Israeli leader whose speech became the no 1 talked about political statement in Israel of late. No statement by Netanyahu or Lapid or Bennett or any other aspirant for political leadership in Israel got THIS amount of attention as his short, concise and significant statement. So, said this political leader, ”Medinat Israel changed”, and how right he was.

Israel whose political future depends on the decision of a leader like Abbas, a dentist graduating from Hebrew University , a resident of Maghar in upper Galilee, who speaks fluent Hebrew is another Israel. Another Israel because this is the first time since 1948, that something which was just mentioned as a vision for a distant future, is becoming a current reality — Israeli Arabs are finally becoming an important participant in the running of their state.Today Mansour Abbas defined his sense of what it is to be a citizen-it is to be an Israeli, to be part of Medinat Israel. No Palestine, no Palestinian people, no PAlestinian citizens of Israel, rather Israelis who belong to three religions and two national groups. Let us make no mistake here — Abbas did not refer to the state of the Jewish people as Israel is defined in the Declaration of Independence, a state which clearly is NOT what he would have liked it to be, if it was up to him to decide. He accepted the state of Israel as is, and on the basis of this realistic approach, he called for a much fuller integration of Arabs in this state, their state. There are already many reactions to this speech, reactions which mostly deal with his immediate political preferences — Netanyahu or anyone but Netanyahu. This was NOT what the speech was all about, and it is sadly the case, that Israeli political commentators have , in this case at least, such limited intellectual horizons.

Yes, the timing of the speech and the PR drama accompanied it were all part of the current political melodrama in Israel. Abbas is a politician, so he gave a speech designed to be heard by politicians. But Abbas is also a religious leader, so he also gave a speech reflecting a deeper meaning than passing politics, a speech with religious and moral context. He gave this speech because he does want to use it only for a justification of a political agenda, but also because he wants to establish a wider agenda-an agenda of a civic co-existence which if accepted will lead to a political change. In a way, this is the type of speech one should expect from a leader who emphasized that he represented a religious movement, the Islamic movement. Abbas gave hints about his political preference, as well as the hints given by one of his great political backers, Ali Salam, the Mayor of Nazareth. Both sounded more on the side of a political partnership with Likud under Netanyahu, but both did not shut any door in the face of the other side in Israeli politics. IF this is a correct interprataion of the political/partisan message of Abbas, then it is Binyamin Netanyahu who should be the most attentive person to what Abbas had to say.

Here is Netanyahu challenge … to be what Netanyahu usually is not… to be a man of his words. More Israeli Arabs voted few days ago to Likud than to the parties of the other side, including Meretz which defines itself as a Jewish-Arab party. More Arabs voted for Abbas party than any of the components of the joint Arab list. They did so for a variety of reasons, but definitely also because they listened to Abbas already before the elections and accepted his approach. Netanyahu campaigned among Arabs, Netanyahu was in touch with Abbas and Salam, and therefore, he needs to be attentive and receptive to their messages. In this case, where there is such an opportunity to realize the great vision of Ze’ev Jabotinsky , the ideological forefather of current day Likud ,about living together of Jews and Arabs in a state of the Jewish people, Netanyahu should be the statesman , the leader, not the petty political actor that he is most of the time. If Abbas will give his support to Netanyahu, whether from the outside or as full-fledged partner, Netanyahu will have to deliver. He will have to do what Israel was supposed to be doing already many years ago. More Arabs in the Supreme Court, more Arabs in the government service, more budgets to the Arab population, much more personal security, reevaluation of land policies and all this just to mention some of the desirable changes.

This is NOT to change in any shape, means or form the existence of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, this is NOT to lay the groundworks to a bi-national state, or to dezionize Israel. From my perspective, this is quite the contrary. This is to lead Israel towards the greatest possible victory of Zionism. It will turn Israel into the state which while fulfilling the national, undeniable rights of the Jewish people, also accepts the undeniable rights of the Arab minority for full civic equality, at the same time that it is moving towards peace with many of its Arab neighbors. Abbas today, in a speech where every word was carefully thought out, referred to civic rights. This is where he took a departure from the nationalist Palestinian narrative, and here we come back to the Jewish listeners , whether Netanyahu or any of his political rivals.

The ball is now in their court-the agenda is clear and now it is the time for action. Abbas speech is not supposed to be accepted without a question. Not one question is aroused by it, and this is exactly where and when a dialogue of equals is so important . It is a Zionist and Jewish interest to have him in the political system, whether the next PM is Netanyahu or any other one, while leaving out the terror-supporters from the joint list. As not every Jewish party should be included in any future government, so it is with the Arabs, but this is exactly how we can talk about another Israel, a state where it is not just desirable but vital to have at least one important Arab party as full partners in running the country.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina
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