These days, Mansour Abbas never fails to surprise. The leader of the Islamist party in Israel, historically seen as sitting on the more extreme side of the Arab parties in Israel, has now made a very clear statement calling on Israeli Arabs to accept the reality and legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state. His statement reflects a pragmatic approach to Israeli society and politics that first emerged in his historic decision to join the governing coalition headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Much attention then was appropriately paid to the fact that for the first time in the history of Israel, an Arab political party is part of the governing coalition, indeed not only a part, but a key to the formation and survival of this government. It was seen as an indicator and a catalyst from the Jewish side for improved Jewish-Arab relations within Israeli society.
Less focused but equally important was the fact that Abbas’s decision to join the government was a leap of faith coming from an Arab party that has historically taken stances deemed severely critical of Israel. With this consequential step, the party has shown a willingness to stand with their partners in the coalition during challenging times, particularly the contentious budget test that was just passed with flying colors.
Indeed, Abbas’s statement about coming to grips with the existence of the Jewish state can be in the long run as significant a step as his joining the governing coalition.
In effect, it can have impact on four communities.
First, of course, is its potential impact on Israeli Arabs themselves, to whom Abbas addressed his remarks. In effect, he was saying to his own community that we need to get past old controversies, recognize the reality of the Jewish State, and move on. Inherent in such a comment was both an element of facing reality, that Israel is here to stay, as well as a recognition that continuing to question the legitimacy of the Jewish state ill serves the interests of the Israel’s Arab citizens..
Connected to this was the second part of Abbas’s statement, in which he went on to say that the issue that should be the focus going forward is not whether there should be a Jewish state, but what the role of the Israeli Arab community should be within this Jewish state.
This is an entirely legitimate and important question. Dealing with issues of inequality in education, employment, and safety for many Israeli Arab communities are important matters. So is improving relations between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. Raising the question of the legitimacy of the Jewish state had served as an obstacle to addressing these concerns which often times go to the heart of the animosity and grievances between the two communities.
Abbas’s approach therefore could be a liberating moment.
And this is exactly the right balance, one that offers real opportunities for bringing more equality and social cohesion to Israeli society by putting aside the most divisive theme which often stood in the way of a serious look at inequities in Israeli society.
At the same time, Abbas’s remarks speak to Israel’s Jewish majority. This has the potential of a breakthrough in beginning to put aside the ideological issues that have so often led Israeli Jews to hesitate about addressing the issues of inequality in the Arab community because of the fear that that the ultimate goal,, at least among some of the most vocal, was the end or transformation of the Jewish state.
If the Abbas message gains traction among different ideological groups, the path can be opened for greater cooperation between Jewish and Arab communities in Israel on common problems and challenges. It should be noted that progress is already being made, as embodied by the commitment of this Israeli government to invest 10 billion shekels in the Arab sector for investment in greater educational and employment opportunities.
Beyond Israel itself is the question whether this message will be heard by the Palestinians. The theme of moving away from rejectionist ideology that has hurt the Arabs themselves is even more significant when it comes to the Palestinians. Looking at the sad history, it is hard to conclude that Abba’s pronouncement will change Palestinian thinking, but the fact that an Islamist leader has thrown into the public discussion the notion of fully accepting the idea of a Jewish state could have ripple effects that are not currently foreseeable.
Finally, the Abbas message comes in the context of the Abraham Accords and gives further weight to the increasing steps being taken toward solving real problems and away from the ideological controversies that have long poisoned the region.
Let us applaud Mansour Abbas and hope that his message will resonate in many, many circles.