Israeli-Arab party makes history. But will Israeli Arabs benefit?

David Goldman/AP
A man walks past a synagogue that sits across from a church and a mosque in what is known as the triangle of religions in the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Lod in central Israel, May 30, 2021.

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Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political legacy can be seen in part through the prism of his relations with Arab citizens. He spent years demonizing them as a threat to Israel, especially at election time. But this year he pivoted to court a small Islamic party, Raam. Ironically, this paved the way for right-wingers in the “change” coalition that defeated Mr. Netanyahu to accept the Arab party as a partner.

Many Arab citizens are wary, however, of Raam’s decision to join a government that includes former Netanyahu allies. They fear Raam, whose coalition agreement focuses on socioeconomic pledges, might abandon the broader struggle for equality and Palestinian rights.

Why We Wrote This

When an Islamic party helped form Israel’s new government, it set up a momentous test. Success could change the nation. Failure could severely damage Arab confidence in Israeli politics.

Rula Daoud, who works for equality and social justice in Israel, is among those Palestinian citizens of Israel who say they are not joyful about the new government.

If Raam leader Mansour Abbas “is really successful, it says that if you give up on a certain ideology you can survive, which is bad for us as a Palestinian community,” she says. “And if he fails you can say, ‘We have tried everything, but still have no voice, no influence.’

“I see this as a lose-lose situation,” she says. “But maybe I should be more optimistic.”

A taboo in Israel was broken this week when an Arab party joined a ruling coalition for the first time in decades.

The inclusion of the small Islamic Raam party was the final puzzle piece needed to topple Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister after 12 years in power, but it represents an enormous political gamble.

If joining achieves the goal of uplifting the Arab minority, which historically has been marginalized and lags behind the Jewish majority in almost every indicator, from education and infrastructure to income levels, it could change the face of the nation.

Why We Wrote This

When an Islamic party helped form Israel’s new government, it set up a momentous test. Success could change the nation. Failure could severely damage Arab confidence in Israeli politics.

If it fails at a time when the majority of Arab-Israeli voters support a seat at the decision-making table, it could destroy their confidence in Israeli politics.

“Is it a game-changer? That’s the most important question to be asked, and it’s not easy to answer because the test will be in the future,” says Sammy Smooha, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Haifa and expert on Arab-Jewish ties in the country. “But as we’ve known Arab and Jewish politics in Israel until now, it’s a very significant change.”

Professor Smooha notes that since 1948, Arab parties were only engaged in the politics of opposition, because they did not want to join governments, but also to a large extent, because of exclusion.

“We now have an Arab national political party that is eager to be part of a government and to play the game of Israeli politics, something we’ve never had before,” he says.

Netanyahu paved the way

Mr. Netanyahu’s political legacy can be seen in part through the prism of his relations with Arab citizens, whom he spent years demonizing as a threat to the country, especially during election campaigns.

But this year, after Israel’s fourth election in two years, and seeing his political survival at stake, he pivoted to court the socially conservative Raam, whose name is the Hebrew acronym for United Arab List. The irony is that this paved the way for right-wingers in the “change” coalition arrayed against Mr. Netanyahu to accept Raam’s four Knesset members as partners, creating this breakthrough moment.

Yet many Arab citizens are wary of the decision to sit in a government led initially by former Netanyahu ally Naftali Bennett. He leads a right-wing party and once headed the Jewish settlement movement. They fear Raam, whose coalition agreement focuses on socioeconomic pledges, might abandon the broader struggle for equality and Palestinian rights.

So it’s a high-stakes move for Raam leader Mansour Abbas, a dentist turned politician who grew up in a mixed Christian, Muslim, and Druze village in the Galilee, where he learned early the art of compromise. He must deliver on his promise of improving the lives of Arab citizens, and avoid being seen as a fig leaf for inequality within the new government.

United Arab List Raam/Reuters
Raam party leader Mansour Abbas (right), Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett (center), and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid (left) sit together in Ramat Gan, Israel, June 2, 2021.

The challenge is all the more acute amid the soaring mutual Jewish-Arab mistrust and fear following unprecedented internecine violence in May, when tensions over Jerusalem and Israel’s most recent war with Hamas in Gaza boiled over into the streets of mixed Jewish-Arab cities.

The Joint List, the umbrella Arab political party from which Raam broke off this year, voted Sunday against the new government, which was approved by just one vote in parliament. It was an intentional rebuke of Raam, whom they see as betraying the wider Arab public by not making social justice and equality issues, alongside the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, a condition for joining the coalition.

“Being in the government cannot be a goal in itself if it means taking responsibility for a political platform of this government, so no, I don’t share in the celebration,” says Yousef Jabareen, a law professor and former Joint List Knesset member. “I don’t see this as an historic moment. For me it’s a sad moment because I’m afraid Raam will serve as cover for the government strengthening the occupation and settlements and continuing discriminatory policies.”

Risks for all parties

Although Dr. Jabareen’s party was the first Arab party to champion the idea of joining a coalition, the point was, he says, not to join any government, and certainly not one with a majority of right-wing coalition partners.

The unity of this new, fragile coalition – spanning parties from the right, left, and center – is an illusion, he argues.

“Whenever security tensions arise, whether it’s another war with Gaza, or another [police] invasion of Al-Aqsa Mosque” in Jerusalem, “or brutal attacks on Arab demonstrators, the Arab youth will raise their voice against the government and specifically Raam, for giving it legitimacy,” he says.

Arik Rudnitzky, a researcher in the Israel Democracy Institute’s Arab-Jewish Relations Program, notes, however, “There’s great risks here for all the parties involved in this unusual coalition.

“All have a lot to lose, so it’s either they watch one another’s backs or lose all together,” he says. “Perhaps that will serve to bind them together in order to make this coalition hold on for at least a couple of years if not a full term.”

The difference in approach between Raam and The Joint List is one of pragmatism versus ideology, says Dr. Rudnitzky, an ongoing debate within the diverse Arab electorate.

Raam has taken a page from ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties that have sat in the majority of Israel’s coalitions (though notably, not the new one) no matter what their politics, as long as they deliver on funding for their communities.

Ariel Schalit/AP
Mansour Abbas, leader of the Raam party, speaks during a Knesset session in Jerusalem, June 13, 2021. The support of Mr. Abbas' party enabled Naftali Bennett to oust Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister.

But Raam has crossed all the traditional “red lines” for an Arab party. The absence of a focus on national Palestinian issues, long a thorn in the side of right-wing Jewish parties that used it as a way to cast doubt on Arab parties’ loyalty to Israel, makes Raam more acceptable to the Jewish majority as a whole, Professor Smooha argues.

“It sharpens the distinction between a ‘good Arab’ and a ‘bad Arab,” he says. “A ‘bad Arab’ is seen as subversive for having a Palestinian identity, and can even be seen as a traitor.”

Mr. Bennett himself had called Dr. Abbas “a supporter of terror” in the past, something he apologized for in a recent television interview where he hailed him as “a decent man ... a brave leader.”

“Run out of options”

The shift that Dr. Abbas has embraced is reflected in the surveys showing the Arab public’s view that it’s time to have a seat at the table.

“They have run out of options as nothing else has led to the changes they seek – so they need a change,” says Muhammed Khalaily, a researcher in the Arab society program at the Israel Democracy Institute.

One area where Raam needs to deliver is government recognition of some of the Bedouin villages in Israel’s Negev desert, largely shantytowns without access to basic services like electricity or water. The party’s main electoral support comes from Bedouin communities. Other goals are significantly increased budgets to address decades of systemic neglect of Arab towns, schools, and basic infrastructure, and repeal of a law that disproportionately punishes Arab citizens for constructing homes without permits.

Rula Daoud, an activist in Standing Together, a grassroots organization of Jews and Arabs working for equality and social justice in Israel, lives in Lod, a mixed city that saw the worst of the Arab-Jewish violence in May.

She is among those Palestinian citizens of Israel who say they are not joyful about the new government, although she is relieved Mr. Netanyahu is no longer in power.

“I can’t be joyful today because tomorrow we are not going to wake up to be equal,” Ms. Daoud says, adding she resents Dr. Abbas for playing up to what she sees as the “good Arab” role.

“If he is really successful, it says that if you give up on a certain ideology you can survive, which is bad for us as a Palestinian community in Israel,” she says. “And if he fails you can say, ‘We have tried everything, but still have no voice, no influence.’

“I see this as a lose-lose situation. But maybe I should be more optimistic,” she says. “The one good thing is finally the Palestinian community is not embracing just one way of thinking.”

Mr. Khalaily, noting that Arab parties have been in the opposition for years, says, “It is an historic moment, a significant change for Arab parties to get off the bench and onto the court [of government]. But there’s still no proof it will bear fruit.”

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