That four Arab states in four months normalized relations with Israel is a remarkable development that opens the possibility that the Arab states’ war with Israel, which began in 1948, is winding down.
But there is more good news, less visible and also potentially momentous: a change taking place among the people who constitute Israel’s ultimate enemy, its Arab citizens. This sector may finally begin to end its self-imposed political isolation and recognize the Jewish state.
First, some background: About 600,000 Arabs fled as Israel came into existence, including most of the educated, leaving 111,000 behind, mostly peasants. That rump population then multiplied many through the decades, supplemented by a steady influx of immigrants (in what I call the “Muslim aliya”); Israel’s Arabs now number 1.6 million, or about 18% of the country’s population.
That population long ago escaped its rural confines, having become educated, mobile and connected. By now, it has included a supreme court judge and a government minister, ambassadors, businessmen, professors and many others of distinction.
Despite this impressive progress, the community has consistently voted for radical and anti-Zionist representation in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. While its members (MKs) have differed sharply among themselves in ideology, dividing into Palestinian nationalist, pan-Arab nationalist, Islamist and leftist, all reject Israel’s Jewish nature.
Doing so excludes them from influence in governing the country. Not only are they barred from deciding sensitive foreign and defense issues, but they have virtually no say over the formation of governments and only on the rarest of occasions (such as the Oslo accords in 1993) do they have a voice in major government decisions. All attempts by Arab politicians until now to break this logjam have failed.
Enter Mansour Abbas, 46, the head of an Islamist party, the United Arab List (also known as Ra’am), which holds four of the Knesset’s 120 seats. He hails from the Galilee town of Maghar and has a dentistry degree from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; currently, he is studying for a Ph.D. in politics at Haifa University. Married with three children, he practices dentistry in Maghar.
Mr. Abbas (not to be confused with Mahmoud Abbas, 85, head of the Palestinian Authority) has recently emerged as a deal-making politician ready to act pragmatically on behalf of Israel’s Arabs. At a time of electoral turbulence, with new elections scheduled for March 2021, he has become an instant powerbroker due to his readiness to cooperate with Benjamin Netanyahu and perhaps even to save Mr. Netanyahu’s prime ministry.
He speaks openly of his intentions, saying “Netanyahu tries to take advantage of me, but I do the same to him.” Specifically, he wants Mr. Netanyahu to ease legal construction in Arab towns and approve funds to address Arab crime problems. Success in these areas could provide him with sufficient appeal to win more seats in the next parliament.
A recent poll shows Mr. Abbas’ approach has struck a nerve. Also, Yousef Makladeh of StatNet, a consulting company, reports: “Over 60 percent of the [Israeli] Arab population supports MK Mansour Abbas’ approach, that they can work with the [Jewish] right.” He adds that “A majority of the Arab public favors the peace agreements with the Gulf States.”
While Ariel ben Solomon of JNS dismisses Mr. Abbas’ changes merely as “a tactical move,” Mazal Mualem of Al-Monitor calls him “one of the most influential people in Israeli politics” and Gil Hoffman of the Jerusalem Post suggests his alliance with Mr. Netanyahu “could change Israeli politics forever.”
Indeed it could. Mr. Abbas offers a path for Israeli Arabs finally to abandon the old, sterile negativity vis-à-vis the Jewish state. His flexibility might repudiate the influential 2006 study, “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel,” which offers loyalty to Israel only after it sheds its Jewish nature and becomes a binational state in which Palestinian culture and power enjoy complete equality.
This development advances the Israeli Arabs’ increasing awareness of the dismal reality of Palestinian life in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza, and recognizing, in the words of one Jerusalem resident, that “The hell of Israel is better than the paradise of Arafat.” Also, it confirms the tectonic shift in attitudes toward Israel, where Arabs and Muslims increasingly accept Israel even as the global left progressively rejects it.
Though few and weak, its Arab citizens have exceptional importance for the future of Israel. May it be positive.
• Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org, @DanielPipes) is president of the Middle East Forum.