The definition of Israel as a Jewish state is a longstanding issue debated in Arab society, even if it has been pushed to the margins in recent years. There are two main ideological streams participating in this discussion: the Communists and the Nationalists, while the Islamic stream pays little attention to the issue.
From a religious perspective, the Islamic stream does not recognize the historical right of the Jews to the Holy Land. On the political and practical level, they accept the situation that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people and that the Jewish majority is exercising its right to self-determination.
Mansour Abbas’ declaration is aligned with similar ones made in the past by heads of the Islamic Movement, such as the founder of the movement – Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish, Sheikh Hamad Abu Da’abis and Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsur.
The Islamic Movement’s charter, which was published in September 2018, is intensely critical of the historical circumstances that led to the establishment of the State; however, it does not propose any changes in the definition of Israel as a Jewish state.
Ra’am took an unprecedented step by joining the coalition last summer. If it turns out that this achieves the goals the party has set for itself, then Ra’am will benefit in future elections.
“The State of Israel was born as a Jewish state. That is the decision of the people and the question is not concerning the identity of the State. It was born that way and that is how it is will remain […] The question concerns the status of the Arab citizen living in the Jewish State of Israel.” This statement was made by MK Mansour Abbas, the Chairman of the Ra’am party, in an interview with the media personality Muhamad Majadla during the Israel Business Conference in December 2021.
This statement is exceptional and lies outside the rhetoric that has characterized the discourse of the Arab parties for many years. This is all the more so when it comes from a senior Arab politician who has from a young age been active in the Islamic Movement. Against this background, one can understand why it led to such intense criticism from politicians and senior public figures in Arab society and even from Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority. Professor Ibrahim Abu Jaber, one of the founders of the Trust and Reform Party (Al-Wafa’ wal-Islah), a political non-parliamentary body identified with the Islamic Movement headed by Sheikh Ra’ed Salah, claimed that Abbas’ statement is to be condemned just like the Balfour Declaration and it is perhaps even more dangerous. Issam Makhoul, who is an ex-MK from the Hadash party, called Abbas “the good Arab of Israeli politics.” Makhoul claims that the Jewish State being recognized by Abbas is galloping toward apartheid, is solidifying the occupation and is inciting against the Bedouin citizens of the State in the Negev.
From a historical point of view, the definition of Israel as a Jewish state is one of the oldest issues in Arab society. The debate around it became even more intense in the 1990s as interest increased in the rights of Arab citizens as a native minority. At the same time, Arab intellectual circles devoted increasing attention to the rights of the Jewish majority in Israel. The discussion of these questions is an important landmark in the process of shaping the Palestinian national consciousness among the Arab minority in Israel, even if its intensity has declined in recent years and even though it has been pushed to the margins.
The participants in this discussion are the politicians and intellectuals who are identified with two main streams: the Arab-Jewish Communist stream, which is represented in the Knesset by the Hadash party, and the nationalist stream, which is identified primarily with the Balad party. It appears that the members of the Islamic Movement are less involved with these questions since their worldview is based on more religious ideas than on nationalist ideas. What collective rights do the Jews have? What is their right to the Holy Land? The members of the Islamic Movement do not provide any answers to such questions.
The position of the Islamic movement becomes clear from the discussion of questions on the continuum between the purely religious and the nationalistic-political. On the religious level, from which the historical-Islamic narrative with respect to the Holy Land is derived, the members of the Islamic movement do not accept the Jewish religious claim to the Temple Mount, where the Al Aqsa Mosque is located, nor even to the Western Well, which is known as the Al-Buraq Wall to the Arabs. They don’t even recognize the historical right of the Jews currently living in Israel to the Land of Israel, since according to their view god promised the land to the believers – not necessarily the Jews.
To the extent that the discussion shifts from the religious level to the political and more practical level, a different picture emerges. The view of the parliamentary Islamic movement, which is represented in the Knesset by Ra’am, is derived from the doctrine of the “Muslim minority jurisprudence”. In their rhetoric and practice, they adapt themselves to the existing political reality, in which they are an Arab minority that is largely Muslim (84%) and living in a state with a non-Muslim majority. They oppose the Zionist character of the State, which gives national preference to the Jewish majority, and on a fundamental level demand that Israel be defined as a “state of all its citizens”. Nonetheless, and in contrast to the members of the nationalist stream, they do not demand that the character of the State be changed. They acquiesce to the fact that Israel is the national home of the Jews and that its Jewish majority is exercising its right to self-determination.
The explicit recognition by Mansour Abbas of the Jewish State is not new. It was preceded by similar statements by past leaders of the Islamic Movement who expressed their explicit recognition of Israel as a Jewish State and of its right to exist in the Holy Land. In the summer of 2001, the journal of the Islamic Movement, al-Meathaq, published an article by Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish (1948–2017), the founder of the Islamic Movement. The vast majority of the article was devoted to outlining the conditions for a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians and first and foremost “a full commitment to the international decisions regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, based on which the State of Israel was established.” It also discussed the relations between the State of Israel and its Arab citizens as follows:
The State of Israel is a binational state, whether the government recognizes it or not. […] One of the most important factors that can contribute to stability and coexistence between the two peoples in this land is, more than anything else, an immediate declaration that Israel is a democratic state and a state of all its citizens. This does not in any way contradict the fact that this state fulfills the aspiration of the Jews for an independent state, only within the pre-1967 boundaries.
Darwish’s position led several Jewish researchers to the conclusion that not only did he recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel but to some extent he also accepted its Jewish character.
Sheikh Hamad Abu Da’abis, who recently completed a 12-year tenure as the head of the Islamic Movement, explicitly expressed this view in an article published in March 2001 in the Movement’s magazine. He was at that time the head of the Islamic Movement in the Negev and explicitly recognized—even if only indirectly—the Jewish identity of the State:
We are a minority in a non-Muslim country, to which apply many of the Muslim minority laws, as is the case for Muslim minorities in Europe and America. Furthermore, our uniqueness arises from the fact that we are a minority in the State of Israel, the only Jewish state in the world, and we are also a minority in our land.
Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsur, who was the head of the Islamic Movement during 1998–2010, and is considered to be one of the authoritative figures in the Islamic Movement, made similar declarations in the past. In one of his interviews during the 1990s, he stated: “We are not talking about the establishment of an [Islamic] state within Israel. That is ridiculous. It is our lot to live in a state that is fundamentally a Jewish state. We accept that fact. […] We accept that we are a minority in Israel.” In February 2006, prior to the 17th elections for the Knesset, in which he was a member, and while he was the head of the Islamic Movement, Sarsur provided a more detailed explanation:
We in the Islamic Movement support the establishment of a Caliphate but only in the Arab Muslim states. […] With respect to Israel, we will maintain the Islamic-national entity and we will insist on full rights. It isn’t important that this is a Jewish state. As long as it is a democracy, we will demand equality, because we are part of the reality.
But it cannot therefore be concluded that the Islamic Movement is attributing fundamental legitimacy to Israel as a Jewish state. In September 2018, at the conclusion of an ideological process that lasted several years and was fed by the upheavals in the Arab world at the beginning of the decade (the Arab Spring), the Islamic Movement approved a new charter. This large document (73 pages) describes the worldview of the Islamic movement on the religious, social, political and national levels. With respect to the historical circumstances that led to the establishment of the State of Israel, the document states that “the State of Israel is the result of the racist and imperialist Zionist project, rapacious British and Western imperialism and the downtrodden state and helplessness in the Arab and Islamic world. […] The State of Israel arose as a colonial settlement project after confiscating the right of the Palestinians to self-determination and a life of liberty and independence on its land and in its homeland.” (p. 14)
The charter goes on to intensely criticize Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians:
For decades, Israel has adhered to a hostile approach to our people and to the occupation of our land. It commits war crimes against us, takes away our rights, confiscates our land, encroaches on our holy places, desecrates the holiness of the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque and denies the Palestinians freedom and independence. It prevents the refugees from returning to their homeland, their land and their homes and prevents the displaced [the “internal refugees”] from returning to their homes and villages. We cannot enter an alliance with it nor identify with its Zionist doctrine, which advocates racism and occupation – not as part of acquiescence to Israelization in its many forms which takes away our identity, our uniqueness and our rights; not in representing or supporting it nor in the justification of its crimes and hostility; not by defending the occupation, the loathing and the discriminatory racist policy; and not by means of serving in the security forces, which are used to oppress our people, solidify the occupation and deny the Palestinians of their freedom and independence. (p. 17)
At first glance, the language of the Islamic Movement’s charter reminds one of the “Future Vision” document that was published in 2006 by the National Committee for the Heads of Arab Local Authorities. It stated that “Israel is the outcome of a settlement process initiated by the Zionist–Jewish elite in Europe and the West and realized by colonial countries contributing to it and by promoting Jewish immigration to Palestine, in light of the results of the Second World War and the Holocaust.” The document continues by proposing to change the definition of the regime in Israel to one of “Consensual Democracy”.
Nonetheless, the charter of the Islamic Movement does not propose changing the character or definition of Israel as a Jewish state. Essentially, the charter’s criticism of the state serves as a justification for the Islamic Movement to participate in the Knesset. The charter provides two justifications for this: First, political participation in the institutions of the State, such as local councils and the parliament, is an option accepted by most of Arab society and therefore it represents a general consensus (ijmaa’). Second, the participation of the Islamic Movement in the Knesset in fact mitigates the harm caused to the Arab community as a result of the arbitrary and oppressive actions of the regime. The charter states that at the very least this is an attempt to present “the truth to a discriminatory regime (kalimat haq ‘ind sultan ja’ir).” (pp. 17–18)
The conclusion is that even if the Islamic Movement does not ignore its national Palestinian roots and even if it is intensely critical of the State’s character, it does not attempt to ideologically deal with the definition of a “Jewish state”. Instead, it devotes most of its efforts to empowering the Arab community in a way that is consistent with its religious and social worldview. It is against this background that we arrive at the understanding that Mansour Abbas’ statements do not deviate from the Movement’s party line or from similar statements by past leaders of the Movement. What is novel about his statement is not their essence but rather their historical context: In the post-“Nation State Law” era (passed in the Knesset in the summer of 2018) Abbas’ statements were interpreted as providing retroactive legitimacy to that legislation.
The decision by Ra’am, under the leadership of Mansour Abbas, to join the coalition last summer is an unprecedented step in the history of the Arab parties. Although the decision received a significant amount of support on the Arab street, many view it as a gamble. If the coalition succeeds in maintaining unity and to the extent that Ra’am can show achievements for the Arab community in general and its constituency in particular, then there will be a greater chance that Abbas’ political gamble will pay off and Ra’am will reap the benefits in coming elections.
Dr. Arik Rudnitzky is Project Manager of the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation (KAP), the Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University.
 Gad Peretz, “Mansur Abbas: ‘The State of Israel is a Jewish state and will remain so. The question concerns the status of the Arab citizen’”, Globes, December 21, 2021. [Hebrew]
 Jacky Khouri, “Abbas declares that ‘Israel is a Jewish state and will remain so’ and became the target of criticism – even in his own party”, Haaretz, December 22, 2021 [Hebrew]; Mohammad Watad, “The Palestinians of 48 reject the declaration of Mansour Abbas regarding the Jewishness of the State”, Al-Jazeera Net, December 22, 2021. [Arabic]
 Ibrahim Abu Jaber, “An analysis of the declaration by Mansour Abbas”, Mawtani 48 Site, December 30, 2021. [Arabic]
 Issam Makhoul, “Good Arab Abbas”, Haaretz, January 12, 2022. [Hebrew]
 Arik Rudnitzky, “The Arab minority in Israel and the discourse over the ‘Jewish State’” (Jerusalem: Israel Democracy Institute, 2015). [Hebrew]
 For a comprehensive discussion of this topic, see Arik Rudnitzky, “Do the Jews have a right to self-determination in Palestine? The Islamic discourse in Israel”, in Meir Hatina and Muhmad al Atuna (eds.), Muslims in the Jewish State: Religion, Politics and Society (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 2017), pp. 80–100. [Hebrew]
 Iyad Zahlaka, Sharia in the Modern Era: The Law for Muslim Minorities (Tel Aviv: Resling, 2014). [Hebrew]
 Abdullah Nimr Darwish, “The proposed solution and the hoped-for peace”, Al-Meathaq, August 24, 2001. [Arabic]
 See Elie Rekhess, “The Islamic Movement in Israel and its ties to political Islam in the territories”, in Ruth Gavison and Daphna Hakcer (eds.), The Jewish-Arab Rift in Israel: A Reader (Jerusalem: the Israel Democracy Institute, 2000), p. 295 [Hebrew]; Hillel Frisch, Israel’s Security and Its Arab Citizens (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 95.
 Hamad Abu Da’abis, “The problems of our being Muslims in a Jewish and democratic state”, Al-Meathaq, March 23, 2001. [Arabic]
 Cited in: Asad Ghanem, The Palestinian-Arab Minority in Israel, 1948-2000: A Political Study (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), p. 126.
 Cited in: Binyamin Neuberger, Arab Society in Israel: Parties and Elections, Leadership and Media, Volume C, Unit 7: One voice for everyone – parties and elections (Ranana: Open University, 2010), p. 98. [Hebrew]
 Elie Rekhess, “The Evolvement of an Arab-Palestinian National Minority in Israel”, Israel Studies, 12/3 (Fall 2007), pp. 1-28.