Ra’am’s Stint in Power Raises Tough Questions for Israel’s Arab Voters

Ra’am’s Stint in Power Raises Tough Questions for Israel’s Arab Voters
Then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, center, speaks with lawmaker Mansour Abbas ahead of the vote to dissolve the Knesset, in Jerusalem, June 30, 2022 (AP photo by Ariel Schalit).
Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, was dissolved last Thursday, triggering new elections in November that will be the country’s fifth in four years. The elections, which extend an unprecedented streak of instability in Israel’s electoral politics, became inevitable after the coalition government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett lost its razor-thin majority a little over a year after it took office. Billed as the “government of change,” the unwieldy coalition that Bennett helmed comprised parties from across the political spectrum, held together only by the common interest of unseating Bennett’s predecessor, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Netanyahu was a decisive figure whose Machiavellian style antagonized many previous allies, including Bennett himself. Still, the unifying mission of ousting Netanyahu could not entirely insulate Bennett’s government from the strains of its ideological divisions, which forced the coalition into numerous crises until its predictable collapse. One member of the coalition that typified both its distinct character and the internal tensions at its core was the United Arab List, or Ra’am. An Arab political party, Ra’am is associated with the southern branch of the Islamic Movement, an organization with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood that advocates for a participatory role in Israeli politics. In joining Bennett’s government, Ra’am became the first Arab party ever to serve in a governing coalition in Israel’s 74-year history. Over that time, Israel’s exclusionary brand of Zionist, ethno-national politics had made the inclusion of non-Zionist Palestinian-Arabs in government virtually impossible: Israel’s Jewish establishment had no desire to involve them in political decision-making, and Arab politicians felt uncomfortable participating in governments whose policies aimed at disenfranchising Palestinians and waging war against other Arabs. Instead, they preferred to advocate from the opposition for the specific needs of their community and for a larger Arab-Israeli peace. That is why Ra’am’s decision to break with this modus vivendi was, in addition to being groundbreaking, controversial, even as it stemmed from a widespread desire by Palestinian citizens to have greater influence in Israeli society. As such, the overall significance of this political experiment will likely be a matter of enduring debate—both in terms of whether Ra’am’s time in government produced extraordinary results and if it had a lasting impact on the Israeli political system writ large. But perhaps the most important part of this debate is whether Ra’am’s membership in the coalition merely breached the taboo on Palestinian-Arab inclusion, or whether it eliminated it entirely. In other words, was this a one-off? Or is it likely to happen again? To begin with, it is highly doubtful that mainstream Israeli Jewish parties would have even entertained Ra’am as a possible coalition partner had it not been for the extreme nature of the political crisis that gripped Israel in the first half of 2021, with no faction able to form a governing coalition through three previous election cycles. At the time, Ra’am was part of the Joint List, a grouping of four Arab political parties that had united in 2015 and galvanized the Arab public enough to become the third-largest voting bloc in the Knesset. Unable to come to terms with his counterparts on how to translate that success into actual political influence, however, Ra’am’s leader, Mansour Abbas, eventually broke his party away from the bloc before the fourth election, likely sensing an opportunity to capitalize on Israel’s political deadlock with his own strategy.

In a future where Netanyahu is no longer a political force, the Arab public may be less forgiving of a party that is directly associated with the policies of a right-wing government.

Nonetheless, virtually no majority-Jewish party at the time supported entering into a government that included Ra’am. Ultimately the scope of the crisis changed that calculation, especially when Ra’am was willing to enter the coalition as an unequal member, without any ministerial mandates for its officials; by comparison, every other party in the coalition was given control over at least three ministries. Thus, the entry of the first Arab party into government was facilitated by political expediency, rather than progressive politics or liberal ideals, as well as Abbas’ willingness to play along as a means to his own ends. Whether an Arab party will ever gain equal membership in government, with the corresponding ministries to show for it, is another question entirely. As long as Netanyahu’s potential return to power looms, which it has since he left office and does even more so now in light of the upcoming elections, the argument for expediency remains compelling, meaning Ra’am could get a chance to expand its influence. Yet if Netanyahu is ever removed from the political picture for good, the fissures in Israeli right-wing politics that made this experiment possible will in all likelihood disappear, no matter how much Abbas is willing to concede in return for an active role in governing. Beyond the shifting political context, it is also important to take stock of whether Ra’am was able to influence government policy from the inside, which will be critical to how the public assesses the effectiveness of its approach. In other words, was the party able to achieve what it set out to do? This, too, is up for debate. Abbas has always been clear that his decision to enter the coalition was motivated by the desire to secure tangible gains for his constituency, especially on pressing issues such as the soaring violent crime and socio-economic inequality plaguing Arab communities in Israel. During Ra’am’s time in—or adjacent to—power, the Cabinet approved important bills addressing both issues, including a five-year funding bill for socio-economic development worth roughly $9 billion. Undoubtedly, Abbas will portray these as signature achievements to burnish his reputation and validate his strategy. Yet it is not altogether certain whether these budgetary allocations were a direct result of Ra’am’s presence in the coalition. Crime in Arab communities had risen to the point of being a national concern, and there was already growing pressure on the government to address the issue. And the five-year funding bill is not the first of its kind. Rather, it comes on the heels of a similar one passed under Netanyahu in December 2015, when even segments of the Israeli right recognized that the country’s overall economic growth would stall if certain communities—namely Arabs and ultra-orthodox Jews—continued to be left behind. Thus, it’s difficult to argue that either bill is a unique achievement made possible only by Ra’am’s participation in government, or that these new funds will ever be allocated now that their sponsoring government has collapsed. At the same time, Ra’am’s participation was not without political costs, as it chose to uphold and defend a government that accelerated illegal settlement building in occupied territory, ratcheted up home demolitions and lethal violence against Palestinians, and aggravated religious tensions in Jerusalem, an issue of pressing concern to Ra’am’s religious constituency. Of course, compared to Netanyahu’s inflammatory anti-Arab rhetoric and similar policies, Ra’am could more easily justify remaining in government. In a future where Netanyahu is no longer a political force, that balance will be assessed more clearly, and the Arab public may be less forgiving of the costs of being directly associated with the policies of a right-wing government. Some analysts have argued that Ra’am’s presence in government has had a normalizing effect for the Jewish public that will make it easier for Arab parties to join future coalitions. To be sure, Bennett paid a heavy reputational price among the right wing for aligning his party with Arabs and leftists, and polling shows that right-wing voters still overwhelmingly oppose their leaders’ joining forces with Arab parties. Nevertheless, among more centrist parties, polling has shown a shift over the past year, with growing support for Arab participation in decision-making. Beyond normalization, it is likely that centrists are realizing—much like the left did in the 1990s, when then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin solicited Arab parties to support his government from outside—that they can no longer effectively contest power against the dominance of the right without building a more diverse coalition. Still, it’s hard to imagine centrist parties choosing to partner with anti-Zionist Arab parties, especially if their demands increase, over Zionist parties from the right if Netanyahu is no longer a factor. For years, a growing sense of alienation and disillusionment has spread among Palestinian citizens of Israel as their quest to make Israel a more equal society has been met with stiff resistance and a deluge of discriminatory legislation. And while Arab citizens have rallied around the mantra of transforming Israel into “a state of all its citizens,” right-wing parties made it their mission to tip Israel decisively in favor of its status as a Jewish state, codified in the 2018 Nation State Law. Moreover, the Arab public’s growing electoral power has not translated into much political influence. As a result, electoral participation has been in decline for years, and Arab politicians have scrambled to find a new way forward that galvanizes their voters. Between 2017 and 2019, the head of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, began to chart a new path by framing his bloc as a legitimate part of the Israeli political spectrum, the inheritors of the Israeli left, and the last remaining proponents of full equality and liberal democracy. When Odeh’s appeals for Arab-Jewish partnership after the inconclusive 2020 elections were rebuffed by the center-left parties that could have formed a government with the Joint List’s support from outside, Abbas took Ra’am in a different direction, adopting a model more akin to the Haredi, or ultra-orthodox, religious parties like Shas, which have traditionally been willing to work with either side of the political spectrum as long as their parochial interests were served. For Odeh and his Joint List colleagues, this was a step too far. Now Odeh and Abbas are fighting for the minds and votes of the Arab community in Israel ahead of the next election, with four months to make their cases. The results of that ballot will be crucial for determining how Arab voters perceived Ra’am’s approach to gaining influence, but they will also signal what type of future Arab-Jewish cooperation has in Israeli politics overall.

Omar H. Rahman is a fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, and formerly a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. His writing has been published in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, VICE, and Al-Jazeera English, among other publications.

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