As elections loom, Arabs take stock of Ra’am’s year-long experiment in government
The Islamists were supposed to bring historic change to Arab Israeli life, but with slow movement on key policy issues, some voters may punish the party at the polls this fall
In the run-up to last year’s election, most political analysts predicted that the Islamist Ra’am party would crash and burn thanks to its willingness to work with right-wing Israeli lawmakers. Among major pollsters, only Yousef Makladeh consistently predicted that the party would enter the Knesset.
A year later, with elections once again on the horizon, Makladeh says the votes are not there to return the four-seat party to the Knesset; repeated polls show Arab Israelis refusing to hand Ra’am another term. Instead, many Arab Israelis who were previously willing to give the party’s bold experiment in coalition cooperation a shot are now asking whether the gambit succeeded in bringing tangible change to Arab communities.
Ra’am, the political wing of Israel’s southern Islamic Movement, became the first independent Arab party to enter an Israeli coalition government last June. But after a year in power, many of the party’s key pledges remain half-completed, with numerous hurdles to overcome before they change Arab Israeli lives.
Every party that entered the fractious, conflicted coalition compromised. For Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas, the question is whether his base will be satisfied enough with the results to give them another shot.
“Of course, in the short term, we understood that this experiment would take time to bear fruit. But these are still enormously modest achievements which do not match the severity of the need,” said a senior official in the Islamic Movement.
“They are not as they ought to have been, or what [Abbas] wants,” the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Ra’am itself is deeply divided over how successful the past year has been. While many Arab Israelis support sitting in a coalition, they expect some sort of return on investing faith in the government. But Abbas has few tangible achievements to show voters at home.
Meanwhile, Arab Israelis have pilloried Ra’am over its apparently ineffectual stances on blocking legislation that could hurt the community. Ra’am’s protests did not prevent alleged changes in the fragile status quo at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, revered by Muslims as Al-Aqsa Mosque. Nor could the party’s efforts ultimately block the renewal of the Citizenship Law, a measure that practically bans Palestinians who marry Israelis from obtaining permanent residency in Israel.
The Islamists knew they would have to vote for policies they despised in order to keep the fragile coalition intact. But doing so became harder and harder when they had little to show in return.
“In the long run, I still believe this is a great achievement — to be a partner, to share the reality of what Arab or Palestinian citizens live with in Israeli society, to place our causes at the center of the discussion,” the Islamic Movement official said.
But the harsh response by the Israeli right to Ra’am’s entry into the coalition has also left its mark, the official suggested.
“The feeling is that all of us, Arabs and Jews, are entering a dark tunnel, where matters will become more and more entangled and polarization will only increase. If Abbas fails, who could ever succeed?” the official said.
Abbas never promised his voters a revolution. He pledged to enact concrete improvements in health, education, and infrastructure, to fight rising violence and organized crime, and to place daily life for Arab Israelis near the heart of the government’s agenda.
“These are not just ‘cost-of-living’ issues. These are not crumbs with which we are satisfying ourselves,” Abbas told the Knesset on the day of the government’s founding last June, calling them “national and patriotic” causes.
The coalition has been too torn between right, left, and Islamist to legislate structural policy changes. The main lever of power, instead, has been less politically sensitive public money.
Under Abbas’s watch, the coalition signed off on a five-year plan that transferred NIS 30 billion ($8.6 billion) to reduce the impact of historic neglect in Arab Israeli communities, as well as an additional NIS 2.5 billion ($722 million) to fight the crime wave sweeping Arab cities and towns.
The money is intended to touch every area of Arab Israeli life: employment, education, health, public transportation, Hebrew language instruction, housing, infrastructure and urban planning.
But months later, much of the money remains in various government ministries. The last five-year, NIS 10 billion ($3.8 billion) plan for Arab community development also saw much of its funding wither away, bound up in red tape.
By the end of 2021, around NIS 2 billion budgeted for that initiative remained trapped in Israel’s treasury, even after the program was extended for an additional year in an attempt to disburse the remaining funds.
Israeli officials had worked on the so-called “923” follow-up plan for Arab Israeli communities for years, well before Abbas reached office. But Ra’am’s presence in the coalition undoubtedly played a role in the heft of the funding that was appropriated last November.
For Arab local leaders, a key fear is that the current five-year plan will see much the same fate as its predecessor.
“The budgets, the government decisions, all of it was good. But so far, it’s remained ink on paper,” lamented Amir Besharat, a senior adviser to the National Council of Arab Mayors.
Government officials say they are working to cut through the red tape as much as possible; the last five-year plan saw similar delays in dispersing funding. But right-wing minister Ayelet Shaked also led efforts to keep as much public money as possible in government ministries, rather than providing it directly to Arab municipalities.
Shaked’s office pointed to widespread reports that crime syndicates in Arab towns have successfully pressured local council heads into turning over public contracts for construction and trash removal — essentially turning government funds into an engine of organized crime.
The hold-up means Abbas has little to show yet for his efforts. And officials say the funding is an essential tool in driving changes that will help squelch Arab Israelis’ highest priority — ending the crime wave decimating their community.
“We believe that the fight against crime must rely on two elements: strengthening the police on the one hand, and on the other hand, economic development, giving young people skills, and so on,” Hassan Tawafrah, who directs a government office intended to advance Arab Israeli economic development, told The Times of Israel last year.
Violence and organized crime
In poll after poll before last March’s election, large majorities of Arab Israelis named ending the deadly crime wave stalking their communities as their highest priority.
Just two and a half weeks ago, it seemed that the current government’s efforts to crack down on the violence were working. But then the situation suddenly flipped: 44 Arabs have now died violently in Israel since the beginning of 2022, the same as at this time last year, which saw record bloodshed.
Over the past six years, organized crime syndicates metastasized in Arab cities and towns, nearly doubling the murder rate. The sound of gunfire became common even in middle-class Arab cities, while many ordinary Arabs came under the thumb of protection rackets and black-market loan sharks.
Both Abbas and the rest of the newly established government took the matter seriously. From the prime minister on down, public officials set up task forces, allocated funding, and outlined clear policy proposals and goals.
“I didn’t promise change in a year or two years. But when you ask Arab Israelis: is there movement? The answer is yes,” Deputy Public Security Minister Yoav Segalovitz said at a conference convened by Haaretz last week.
For a while, it indeed seemed that matters were moving in the right direction. Israeli police cracked down on weapons smugglers and conducted hundreds of arrests. Weeks went by without a single murder and the number of shooting incidents had decreased by 40 percent, according to police.
“Over the past year, we have seen a very, very small improvement. But it’s nowhere near enough. We still see shooting and killing and crime, every day,” said Jabr Hijazi, whose brother Ahmad was shot and killed in the crossfire between armed criminals and police last year, told The Times of Israel in February.
But June has seen a dramatic reversal of even that tentative hope. Eleven Arab Israelis have been killed in violent homicides; the bloodshed has ranged from two young men — including a 14-year-old boy — shot to death in a roadside killing to a young woman blown up in a gangland assassination.
The situation is still improving overall, insisted Abraham Initiatives co-director Thabet Abu Ras, who informally advises the government on anti-crime policy in Arab communities.
“You can feel it even in my hometown of Qalansawe. We used to hear nightly gunfire, and we don’t anymore. The police presence is much more strongly felt in Arab towns across the country,” said Abu Ras.
Abu Ras acknowledged that there was still a long way to go. Nonetheless, he lauded the current coalition for making a serious effort to end the violence.
“It’s all relative. The current government has taken on the issue full-heartedly. We never would have seen this under [Amir] Ohana, or under [Gilad] Erdan,” Abu Ras said, ticking off the names of two recent police ministers affiliated with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.
For other Arab Israelis, official plans and declarations have yet to trickle down into any renewed sense of safety and security.
“The protection rackets, the crime families, the weapons — it’s all still here. In our town, there are still no police. Every conversation winds back to crime because we’re all in danger,” said Ahmad Melhem, an activist in the Arab town of Wadi Ara.
“Everyone is still a potential victim,” Melhem added, “whether in front of the mall, their place of work, in front of their house, or anywhere else.”
Bedouin unrecognized villages
Ra’am’s base is in the Negev desert, where conservative Bedouins turned out for the Islamists in large numbers. In exchange, Ra’am pledged to deliver on the issues that mattered most to them: ending home demolitions and legalizing the unrecognizing hamlets scattered across the south.
Much like on other issues, the question of Ra’am’s ability to influence daily life there is also mixed. Right-wing lawmakers have increasingly demanded a harsh stance on Bedouin crime, rendering any policy seen as catering to their communities politically toxic.
Rahat mayor Fayez Abu Suheiban, a mid-ranking official in the Islamic Movement, defended his party’s record in the south.
“We are seeing better services for the public. In Rahat, additional budgets are improving people’s lives. Being in the coalition has been a blessed and important experience for Arab citizens,” said Abu Suheiban.
But despite Ra’am’s access to power, demolitions in Bedouin towns accelerated in 2021. According to the Public Security Ministry, about 3,004 illegal buildings taken down, about 500 more than in 2020.
“Has there been something new and substantial that really changed things? That’s the question, and that’s what we’re not seeing,” said Taleb al-Sana, a former MK from Lakiya who ran on Ra’am’s party slate for a decade.
Dozens of Bedouin villages remain unrecognized: all construction there is illegal, with little access to legal water or electricity and without a permanent solution to the long-running struggle with the state.
On the one hand, the Islamists secured the official recognition of three unrecognized Bedouin villages — Rahma, Khashm al-Zena, and Abda — in their coalition agreement. But the three hamlets had been approved by government bureaucrats years before as candidates for legalization.
In 2020, recognizing the three villages came up for a vote in the Israeli cabinet. But the vote failed after pro-settler ministers demanded that some illegal West Bank outposts be legalized in exchange.
In January, tensions in the Negev came to a head during clashes over Israeli state-backed forestation efforts. Bedouins saw the planting as an attempt to kick them off disputed land, sparking nights of violence and dozens of arrests.
Abbas mediated a tentative compromise with other government officials that would see 10 more Bedouin villages recognized in exchange for an end to the violence. The riots ended, but the additional recognitions never came.
Al-Sana dismissed those who say that Ra’am succeeded in keeping the situation from getting much worse.
“With Ra’am now, the feeling is that if it rains in winter, they’ll try to claim credit for it,” the former lawmaker said.
Ra’am did push one policy change through the Knesset, sparking fierce opposition and a protracted legislative battle. The so-called Electricity Law, meant to pave the way for Arab homes built without permits to be hooked into Israel’s electric grid, pitted Ra’am against Shaked, a nationalist hardliner. After weeks of wrangling, a compromise law was passed over the howls of opposition lawmakers.
Both Ra’am and the right-wing opposition have sought to portray the legislation as a wide-ranging policy achievement for the Islamists. But experts say the impact on the ground has been nil thus far.
Let’s rewind: In well-established cities in central Israel, over 100,000 Arab Israelis live in illegally built homes that cannot get electricity. The houses are often built on privately owned land – but due to out-of-date city plans, residents can’t get permits for them. Without a permit, your home can’t be connected to electricity.
The Israeli government for decades failed to create and update city plans in Arab towns. Over the last few years, aided by massive state investment, planning authorities have approved some new ones. But the backlog is enormous.
In the meantime, residents rely on so-called “pirate networks” — improvised connections to the grid creating crisscrossing webs of cables over entire neighborhoods. Electrical boxes regularly explode, causing fires, and outages are common.
Ra’am proposed an amendment to Israeli law: if a home was built within the legal boundaries of an existing town, on agricultural land that could one day be legalized, the Interior Ministry could sign off on allowing the home to hook up to the grid – rather than wait years or decades for authorities to finish legalizing the property.
All sides agree that the illegal electricity networks pose a serious risk to health and safety. But the Israeli right, led by Shaked, protested that the law would hook up too many homes, thereby encouraging illegal construction.
Shaked demanded far tighter restrictions on which homes could receive electricity and hundreds of thousands of shekels in collateral from homeowners. With little choice, Ra’am assented to the compromise, but critics say the deal denuded the law.
“The final version of the law imposed so many conditions that it is extremely difficult to actually get electricity,” said Wajdi Khalayleh, an expert on urban planning at Sikkuy, a nonprofit that advances equitable policy between Arabs and Jews in Israel.
The Interior Ministry did not respond to a request for comment as to how many homes were connected to electricity following the law’s passage. But experts who closely follow the planning process say almost no homes have been hooked up.
Khalayleh estimated that only about 1,050 homes would currently be eligible for electricity under the final version of the law. Perhaps “a very small number” have been authorized, Khalayleh said.
In Wadi Ara, about 3,000 homes are illegally connected to the power grid. So far, none of them have been connected to electricity under the new law, said Melhem.
“This law burned through a lot of energy and headlines and we talked it over for months,” said Melhem. “But in the end, nothing happened.”
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