An Arab Kingmaker in Israeli Politics?

With election results deadlocked, an Arab-led party is seen as a possible swing faction.

Mansour Abbas, head of the Israeli party Raam.
Mansour Abbas, head of a conservative Islamist party Raam, speaks at his campaign headquarters in the northern Israeli city of Tamra on March 23. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political surrogates have sought to smear Arab-led political parties in the Israeli parliament for years. They’ve portrayed them as a fifth column, petitioned to disqualify their candidates, demonized center-left politicians who would cooperate with them, and accused Arab polling workers of voter fraud.

But after Israel’s fourth election in two years left Netanyahu and the Israeli opposition deadlocked with no clear majority, the prime minister’s allies have been quietly courting the United Arab List, an Islamist party commonly known by the Hebrew acronym Raam, which emerged from the vote as a potential swing faction between the two blocs.

Just the idea that an Arab-led party could determine who serves as the next prime minister marks a milestone in Israeli politics and for the country’s Arab minority—which makes up one-fifth of the population. For most of the Israel’s history, Arab-led parties have been marginalized in the halls of parliament and shunned as potential coalition partners. To date, no Arab-led party has ever participated in a coalition government.

But Netanyahu, who faces three separate corruption cases, is more desperate than ever to retain power and mitigate the impact of his criminal trial. To that end, he now seems willing to end the taboo—though it’s not at all clear that his own Likud party or his right-wing coalition partners will go along. One prominent right-wing rabbi has already counseled against including Raam in any coalition.

At the center of the gambit is Mansour Abbas, the 46-year-old head of Raam. Abbas has worked to win over Netanyahu for months, inviting him to appear at his parliamentary committee hearings, supporting him in parliamentary votes, and telling reporters he’s ready to do business with the prime minister.

In the days since the election earlier this month, prominent members of Likud have praised Abbas, while other party members have met with him publicly. Abbas also met this week with Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party and Netanyahu’s main rival.

His willingness to engage politically with both sides of the aisle has given Raam some extra leverage. Arab-led parties are usually positioned on the far left of the spectrum. In Israel’s representative parliamentary system, parties that are ideologically flexible enough to join either a left-wing or a right-wing coalition can set a high price for their support, including funding for their constituents.

“If I can get budgets and legislation from Netanyahu, what’s the big deal if I can give him what’s necessary?” Abbas told an Israeli broadcaster last November.

In the lead-up to the March 23 vote, that approach prompted Abbas to break off from the Joint List, an alliance of five—now four—predominantly Arab parties that had been the third-largest faction in parliament since 2015.

Exit polls after the March 23 vote suggested Raam would not pass the threshold required to enter parliament, but by the next day, the party had mustered enough votes for four seats in the 120-member chamber.

“The victory of Mansour Abbas is that he can be a kingmaker,” said Afif Abu Much, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. “Abbas is trying to change the position of Arab voters in Israel. He’s saying, ‘I’m not going to be part of the center-left automatically. I have my own goals, and I want to implement them. I’m not in Bibi’s pocket, and I’m not part of the center-left pocket.”

Raam’s split from the alliance of Arab-led parties did exact a price for the community: Many Arab Israeli voters stayed away from the ballot box, reflecting frustration with the splintering of the Joint List. Voter participation among Arabs plummeted by about 15 percentage points to just under 50 percent, according to Arik Rudnitzky, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, who was citing data from the Central Elections Commission. As a result, Raam and the Joint List will control 10 seats between them in the incoming parliament compared with 15 seats the Joint List had held.

“It’s a historical paradox. When Arab parties are the smaller parties in the parliament, they can make a difference,” Rudnitzky said.

When the Joint List was the third-largest party, it was more easily targeted, demonized, and delegitimized by Likud—making it difficult for even center-left parties to consider including the faction in any coalition, Rudnitzky explained. Raam’s campaign was largely silent on the contentious issue of Palestinian statehood, focusing instead on conservative values, he said. “This smaller party doesn’t harm anyone. They don’t pose a threat as long as you approve budgets and respect their heritage,” he said.

The Raam campaign reflected a yearslong trend among Arab politicians to focus on socioeconomic problems rather than more intractable political disputes with the Jewish majority. The party slogan included the word “realism”—a sign that Raam intended to tackle day-to-day issues including the high crime rate in Arab communities and the frustrations of young Arabs who are under-represented in the government bureaucracy, said Eran Singer, who covers Arab affairs for Israel’s public broadcaster.

The emphasis on conservatism, he said, helped differentiate Raam from the rest of the Joint List, which it attacked as too liberal and supportive of gay rights. Indeed, Raam’s religious conservatism might make it compatible with the ultra-Orthodox parties within Netanyahu’s coalition.

Throughout the election campaign, Netanyahu seemed to be laying the groundwork for the possibility of cooperation with Raam. The prime minister made several stops in Arab towns in an effort to stump for votes, claiming that his government has allocated the largest sums of public money to improving infrastructure in Arab towns. Singer and other reporters took to describing the relationship between Abbas and Netanyahu as a courtship.

For Netanyahu, the about-face is stark. When then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin relied on the votes of Arab-led parties in parliament to pass his Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians in the 1990s, Netanyahu and other political figures on the right accused him of flouting the will of the Jewish majority.

But getting there is still an uphill climb for Netanyahu. Others on the right, including members of the far-right Religious Zionist Party, have said they would not be seated in a coalition with an Arab-led party. Without the Religious Zionist Party, Netanyahu would fail to secure a parliamentary majority.

Still, the impact of the courtship alone may have long-term consequences, wrote Noa Landau, a political columnist for the Haaretz newspaper. “If it continues this way, it could change the face of the country. … It could snowball back to the center-left—Netanyahu has laid for them the groundwork for Jewish-Arab cooperation,” she wrote.

Some veteran Arab Israeli activists say they are leery of how events are unfolding.

Mohammed Dawarshe, who directs a program on Arab-Jewish coexistence, said a deal between Netanyahu and Raam would be more about opportunism than an ideological shift.

“Netanyahu has exhausted the Jewish base. For the fourth time [Netanyahu] can’t get a Jewish majority, so he’s changing his tactic to tap into a new pool of voters,” Dawarshe said. “The track record of Netanyahu over the last 10 years has been very nasty, so to think you can get results from him is naive.”

But Singer said Netanyahu has already set a precedent in Israeli politics and there is no turning back.

“He has given the green light to talk to Arab parties. This is the main change in Israeli politics: Arab [parliamentary] mandates are legitimate.”

Joshua Mitnick is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @joshmitnick

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