Arab party has changed politics in Israel forever

By literally taking a seat at the table and getting deals from the coalition, Mansour Abbas has shown a new kind of Israeli politics is possible


Mansour Abbas, head of a conservative Islamic party Raam, speaks at his campaign headquarters in the northern Israeli city of Tamra on March 23, 2021, before polling stations close during the fourth Israeli national election in two years. (Photo by Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

June 14, 2021 17:03

The inclusion of Islamist leader Mansour Abbas and his Ra’am party in Israel’s new coalition has transformed the country’s politics by giving away a seat at a table usually reserved for Jewish and Zionist political parties.

Palestinians in Gaza have condemned his move in the wake of the recent war with Israel, and some Arabs in Israel have joined their criticism. He has been portrayed as a kingmaker, but also attacked for working with Zionist Israeli parties. On the other side of the spectrum, right-wing Israelis have condemned the partnership with an Islamist Arab party linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. However, Naftali Bennett, head of Yamina, has said Abbas is courageous and that his past criticism of Ra’am was wrong.

While many hurdles remain before the new government can form, the symbolism is what matters: an Arab leader has signed a coalition agreement and sat at the same table with Israeli centrists and rightwingers.

Ra’am crossed an invisible Rubicon that runs across Israel. Although a fifth of Israel’s population is Arab, their parties have not been in a ruling coalition for decades. Instead they form a permanent opposition and a kind of cordon sanitaire has been placed around their parties so there is no outreach to bring them into government. There is also a self-imposed boycott by most of these parties, such as Balad and Hadash, that are non-Zionist or hostile to Israel.

Hadash is technically a Jewish-Arab party that is far-left, while Balad is more of an Arab nationalist party. Haneen Zoabi, a member of Balad, went on the Mavi Marmara ship that sailed to Gaza from Turkey. Azmi Bishara, a Balad leader, fled the country after being accused of being linked to Hezbollah. Basel Ghattas MK was convicted of smuggling phones to security prisoners in 2017. Most Arab towns and villages in Israel vote for the mostly Arab Joint List, which includes Balad and Hadash, as well as Ta’al, another Arab party. Ra’am was once part of the Joint List, but left to run on its own in March .

When it did so, there was little indication that it would make such a splash. However, weeks after the election it became clear that its MKs could make the difference for either Netanyahu or opposition leader Yair Lapid in forming a government. Abbas chose to play this role, rather than abstain as the Joint List and other Arab parties have traditionally done. He actively played a role, breaking a taboo that has existed among Arab parties and opening the door to greater participation in a future government. This was a huge step. It wasn’t so long ago that Yair Lapid was referring to Arab politicians collectively as “Zoabiz,” a reference to Hanin Zoabi, the Arab member of Knesset known for being on the Marmara ship and for her anti-Israel comments. For many years, when Israeli election results were called, the Arab parties wouldn’t be seen as potential coalition partners for the right or Zionist centre and left. After the March election, a poll showed that 49 per cent were open to relying on Arab parties for support, while 43 per cent did not agree.

Even for those who said they would rely on Arab party support, their model was the 1990s, when Yitzhak Rabin’s government depended on passive support from Arab parties that were not in his government. Rabin’s administration had lost the support of Shas, a religious party, in 1993 and needed support from Hadash and another Arab party to continue as the government. But those parties didn’t have a seat at the table in the coalition.

By literally taking a seat at the table and getting deals from the coalition, Abbas has shown a new kind of Israeli politics is possible.

It’s extraordinary that it took Israel 70 years to get to the point where parties supported by 20 per cent of the population actually take part in coalition politics. As well as the parties that refused to work with them, the intransigent non-Zionist parties appeared more interested in Palestinian politics in the West Bank than the Knesset. This created a vicious cycle. Ra’am may have broken that cycle and by changing the taboo against taking part, the rules of the coalition politics game have changed in Israel.


June 14, 2021 17:03

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