Courted by Likud, Ra’am adamant it will not back away from anti-Zionist charter

Islamist party official says Netanyahu and Abbas have not spoken since election, calls reported overture for fresh Abbas speech to soften up Religious Zionism ‘very strange’

Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas gives a speech in the northern city of Nazareth, on April 1, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas gives a speech in the northern city of Nazareth, on April 1, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The Islamist Ra’am political party, positioned as a likely linchpin for any prospective governing coalition, is standing by its foundational charter, which forbids any allegiance to Israel and deems Zionism a “racist, occupying project,” a senior party official told The Times of Israel this week.

The faction is being wooed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who needs the support of Ra’am to pass the 61-seat threshold for forming a majority coalition, or the party’s outside backing for a minority coalition. The party could also help an anti-Netanyahu bloc led by Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid. But some right-wing politicians, both in the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps, have ruled out basing a coalition on the party’s support, due to what they say is an anti-Zionist stance; others, like the far-right Religious Zionism, have accused Ra’am of supporting terrorists.

Ra’am is the political wing of the Southern Islamic Movement, an organization inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood. Updated in 2018 and reviewed at a 2019 conference in Nazareth which was reportedly chaired by Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas, the Southern Islamic Movement’s 80-page charter takes positions considered anathema by most Jewish Israelis.

It calls for the so-called right of return for Palestinian refugees who left or were expelled in 1948, widely seen as a red line by most Zionist Israelis, who view an influx of potentially millions of Palestinians to Israel as spelling the demographic end of the Jewish state. It compares the status quo in Israel and the territories to the short-lived Crusader kingdoms built by European invaders in the Holy Land in the Middle Ages.

“There can be no allegiance to [Israel], nor any identification with its Zionist, racist, occupier thought, nor any acceptance of any of the various forms of ‘Israelification,’ which would shed us of our identity and particularity and rights,” says the charter, provided to The Times of Israel last week by a senior figure in Ra’am.

MK Mansour Abbas, leader of Ra’am, votes in Israel’s parliamentary election at a polling station in Maghar, Israel, March 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean, File)

Ra’am party officials have in recent months avoided discussing the charter or how their movement views controversial final-status issues relating to Israel and the Palestinians as party leader Mansour Abbas has openly broached the possibility of cooperating with Netanyahu in order to win concessions for the Arab community aimed at fighting organized crime and improving quality of life.

Islamic Movement lawmakers campaigned in Arab towns and cities ahead of the March 23 elections on improving quality of life for Arab Israelis, winning four seats for the party, which had previously been part of the Joint List of Arab parties.

But despite the seeming dissonance between the charter and the party’s current public stance, a senior party official said there would be no significant changes to the document.

The Ra’am official said the document had yet to be finalized and okayed by party leadership, but any possible alterations would only be minor and not shift the party’s stance regarding the right of return or Palestinian statehood.

The cover of the 2018 charter of the Southern Islamic Movement, whose political wing, Ra’am, is led by Mansour Abbas (courtesy)

The charter, which covers all aspects of the movement’s positions and activities, from its charity work to its religious worldview, embraces a two-state solution as a possible framework for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, declaring that a Palestinian state ought to be established “alongside Israel” in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem. But it notes that a right of return for Palestinians must be part of that kind of accommodation.

It advocates a single, binational state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea in the absence of a two-state formulation, but also indicates that advancing a Palestinian state is not the first priority of the movement. The main goals relate to the Palestinian community inside Israel.

“Our most important goal with regard to the State of Israel, regarding Palestinian Arab society, is to maintain our presence in our homeland, to preserve our identity, and the Arab, Islamic, and Christian identities of our country, and to enable our community to achieve its rights in civil, national and religious spheres, and in the sphere of daily life,” the charter says.

The party had planned to complete the document and translate it to Hebrew and English, but put that effort on hold in late 2018 as the country entered a period of unprecedented political instability. Israel has held four nearly consecutive elections since 2019, and Ra’am has spent the time since then campaigning, the official said.

Mansour Abbas (L), head of the conservative Islamic Ra’am party, speaks to a crowd during a political gathering to congratulate him on the party’s electoral success, in the northern Israeli village of Maghar on March 26, 2021. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Netanyahu has 23 days to cobble together a coalition, but the religious-right-wing alliance backing him is still several seats short of 61. Even with the support of Naftali Bennett’s Yamina, who has not committed to supporting either Netanyahu or Lapid, Likud would still fall two seats short without Ra’am. Complicating matters, the Religious Zionism party has refused to join a coalition based on the support of Ra’am, and Ra’am officials as well have said they will not cooperate with far-right politicians, albeit without naming names.

Netanyahu and Abbas have not spoken since the election and are not expected to speak anytime soon, according to the senior party official. Last week, Ra’am refrained from recommending any candidate for prime minister, though Netanyahu still managed to secure a mandate from President Reuven Rivlin to form a government.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a ceremony held at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem on April 7, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Abbas returned home Sunday after having been hospitalized with kidney stones. He is not expected back at the Knesset until next week at the earliest. Tuesday marks the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and on Wednesday, Israelis will mark Memorial Day, immediately followed by Independence Day, meaning little parliamentary activity or negotiations are expected over the next several days.

The Ra’am official said the party was paying close attention to the discourse surrounding the idea of integrating Arab representation into Netanyahu’s proposed coalition. Only one coalition in Israel’s history has included the support of Arab parties, which have traditionally camped out in the opposition, though attitudes have seemingly begun to shift in recent years.

In a landmark primetime address to the country on April 1 — carried live on every major television channel in Israel — Abbas said his party sought to “respect every person for his humanity” and emphasized the common destiny of Arabs and Jews in the State of Israel.

Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas speaks during a press conference in Nazareth, April 1, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Many observers noted that Abbas was careful to omit overt mentions of the Palestinian cause from his address. He spoke of himself as “a man of the Islamic Movement, a proud Arab and Muslim, a citizen of the State of Israel,” choosing not to refer to himself as a Palestinian. The Ra’am party chief did note, however, that Arab Israelis had been prevented from achieving “collective realization,” in a possible nod to national rights.

The speech was meant to “present the public with a political partnership and was an attempt by [Abbas] to push Israeli society toward accepting this partnership, without getting into matters of right and left,” the party official said.

Leader of the Religious Zionism party Bezalel Smotrich, on election night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Nonetheless, recent reports have claimed that Netanyahu was seeking a second such address from Abbas, including some clarifications, in order to soften up Religious Zionism’s opposition to a coalition with Ra’am. Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich vehemently denied that he could be persuaded to work with Ra’am on Sunday.

The senior Ra’am official described the reported Likud demands regarding the speech as “very strange.”

“There will be more speeches from Abbas,” the official said. “But the speeches will only include subjects that will benefit Arab society and they will have no connection whatsoever to any changes regarding the charter of the Islamic Movement or Ra’am.”

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