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How Islamist Ra’am broke Arab politics and may win the keys to the government

Mansour Abbas has been controversial among Arab Israelis for his willingness to work with PM Benjamin Netanyahu. But his Tuesday electoral win proves he has considerable support

Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas at the Islamist party's campaign headquarters in the northern city of Tamra, on March 23, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas at the Islamist party's campaign headquarters in the northern city of Tamra, on March 23, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

An Arab Islamist party may hold the key to the political survival of right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the latest and perhaps strangest twist in Israel’s ongoing odyssey to break a two-year political logjam.

Netanyahu is likely to be unable to form a coalition without the participation of the conservative Islamist Ra’am party, which has won four seats in the next Knesset. It would be only one part of a dog’s breakfast coalition that would also need to marry the Islamists with far-right Jewish extremists and ultra-Orthodox special interests.

Ra’am shares many legislative priorities with the Joint List, the amalgamation of Arab parties of which it used to be a part: Passing and implementing a government plan to uproot organized crime from Arab communities, improving local infrastructure, and annulling the 2018 Nation-State Law are among them.

But the party is also guided by a deeply conservative Islamic ideology and holds a virulently anti-gay outlook. While most Arab Israelis hail from northern cities and towns, Ra’am’s base is among the traditional Bedouin communities in the southern Negev desert. Party officials have regularly disparaged gay people with an Arabic slur meaning “perverts.”

Conservative Islamists might seem unlikely partners for Netanyahu, even with the premier’s penchant for political wizardry. But last fall, Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas began to publicly display a warm working relationship with the prime minister.

A combination image showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) casting his vote in the Knesset election in Jerusalem on March 23, 2021; (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL) and Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas (left) at Ra’am headquarters in Tamra on election night, March 23, 2021. (Flash90)

Abbas invited the prime minister to address a Knesset committee he directed, supported him during a contentious parliamentary vote and sought to extract public commitments from Netanyahu for the Arab community’s legislative priorities.

“There’s only one premier, and that’s Netanyahu. He is the address for these demands,” Abbas told The Times of Israel in December.

In exchange, Abbas said he would actively consider sitting in a Netanyahu-led coalition — or even vote to provide the prime minister with immunity from prosecution in his ongoing corruption trial.

In December, Abbas — alone among the Arab parties — abstained from a Knesset vote which would lead to new elections. He argued that a fourth round of elections in two years would likely lead to a far-right government led by Netanyahu, in which the Arab parties would have no leverage.

“I don’t support Netanyahu, nor am I seeking to protect him from prosecution. I’m trying to create change for my constituency — in fighting organized crime, in the housing crisis, recognizing the unrecognized [Bedouin] villages,” Abbas said.

Abbas’s moves dramatically shook Arab Israeli politics and incensed his Joint List allies. For the Joint List, collaborating with Netanyahu — whose rule many Arab Israelis see as a disaster for their community — is a red line.

Netanyahu has long made racial appeals to the far-right based on the fear of Arab support. In 2015, he notoriously published a video on election day claiming that the Arabs “were heading to the polls in droves,” threatening right-wing dominance.

But Abbas has nonetheless pushed forward, saying that his willingness to be a part of a Netanyahu-led government would be purely for the benefit of Israel’s Arab citizens. In February, the Joint List fragmented as Ra’am went its own separate way.

Ra’am candidate Mansour Abbas addresses Arab voters in Kafr Kanna on February 22, 2021 (Courtesy: United Arab List)

A surprising number of Arab Israelis might actually support Ra’am’s theory of change — in a recent survey, 46% of Arab Israelis said they believed it was desirable for the Arab parties to be in any governing coalition, not just a center-left one.

On election day, that survey was borne out when Ra’am took four seats while running on its own — an achievement that few observers would have predicted in February.

From Islamist dentist to Netanyahu partner

Abbas, 46, has become a familiar face for many Jewish Israelis in recent months — a rarity for an Arab politician — due to his willingness to sit with Netanyahu.

Abbas hails from al-Maghar, a Druze-majority town in northern Israel. The small, quiet town is not known as an Islamist stronghold; the Joint List, not Ra’am, took a plurality of votes there in 2021.

Abbas joined the Islamic Movement while studying dentistry at Hebrew University in the mid-1990, after meeting Islamist spiritual leader Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish.

Darwish, who founded Israel’s Islamic Movement, was a unique, contradictory figure. While he initially supported spreading Islam through violence — even sitting in prison for two years for a series of ideologically-motivated assaults — Darwish eventually embraced democracy and peaceful proselytizing.

The group eventually spread widely through Arab cities and towns — especially in southern Israel — operating kindergartens, colleges, health clinics, mosques and even a sports league.

In the 1990s, the Islamic Movement split between those who supported and opposed the Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. The more radical northern branch — headed by former Darwish protege Raed Salah — opposed the move. Darwish, who led the southern branch, embraced it, clearing the way for the creation of an Islamist party, Ra’am, that would seek to work within the political framework of the Knesset, and perhaps planting the seeds of the party’s current pragmatism. Abbas followed his mentor during the schism.

Sheikh Abdullah Nimar Darwish (YouTube screenshot)

Darwish would come to argue that the Muslim leadership in Israel ought to pursue the general good of the community. “To that end, connecting to the government, as well as integrating into its frameworks, is permitted, and even recommended,” wrote Michael Milshtein, a former Israeli defense official who researches Palestinian affairs at Tel Aviv University.

Even as a student, Abbas’s political skills were evident. The Arab Student Union at Hebrew University is traditionally controlled by Communist Arab-Jewish Hadash, one of the four parties that dominate Arab Israeli political life. In recent memory, only one student politician has toppled the reign of Hadash at Israel’s oldest university — Mansour Abbas, who handed the Union to the Islamic Movement.

After slowly rising through the party’s ranks, Abbas entered the Knesset for the first time as Ra’am party chief in 2019. He immediately became notorious for remarks he made to the Israeli news site Walla in support of conversion therapy for LGBT people.

While in the Knesset, Abbas has taken a special interest in fighting violence and organized crime among Arab Israelis, who have seen skyrocketing murder rates in recent years. He directed a committee in the last Knesset focused on dealing with the issue.

Abbas has often justified his cooperation with Netanyahu to his public by pointing to his efforts to pass a multi-billion shekel government plan to end the bloodletting.

‘Political depression’

Tuesday night was the Joint List’s failure as much as it was Abbas’s success. Despite historic gains in the Knesset over the last year, Arab Israelis were stuck in what one political analyst deemed a kind of “political depression.”

March 2020 had seen enormous enthusiasm for the Joint List, which won an unprecedented 15 seats in the Knesset. But with the success came enormous expectations — which the Joint List failed to fulfill.

Ma’an party leader Ahmad Darawsheh stands in the middle of a group of Joint List politicians in front of a slogan declaring the parties’ unity (Courtesy: Ma’an)

In a move they would come to regret, the Joint List’s MKs recommended Benny Gantz for prime minister. It was a nearly unprecedented historic moment, the first time in nearly three decades that an Arab party had recommended a mainstream Zionist politician for the premiership.

The move could have given Gantz the opportunity to form a government without Netanyahu, if he were able to corral the anti-Netanyahu parties into line behind the move. Instead, Gantz wound up joining forces with the right-wing premier, beginning the unhappy life of one of Israel’s most divided governments.

“That really had a negative impact on the Arab community, especially because the recommendation was politically difficult in and of itself — a former general in the IDF, who boasted of how many Palestinians in Gaza he’d killed,” said Joint List MK Yousef Jabareen in a January interview.

Many Arab Israelis have clear priorities they want to see advanced in the Knesset. When asked what matters most to them, Arab Israelis overwhelmingly report that they want to see an end to the spread of violence in their cities and towns, which has risen dramatically in recent years.

The consensus on the need for action has been overwhelming, but the Joint List has been ineffectual. Despite their 15 seats, the Arab parties were unable to advance their legislative agenda from the opposition. Some of the blame can be traced back to a tumultuous pandemic year, in which little legislating was done.

But Arab Israelis, apparently discouraged by the lack of progress, largely stayed home on Tuesday: Only around 52 percent of Arabs turned out to vote, a 13% drop from the previous election.

“One year after the Arabs flocked to the polls and 64.8% of them voted for the 23rd Knesset, yesterday we saw the fruits of disappointment: even 15 seats failed to bring about the desired results,” the Abraham Initiatives shared society organization said in a statement.

Ra’am also exploited the controversial issue of LGBT rights among Arab Israelis. Last summer, three Hadash MKs — including Joint List head Ayman Odeh — had voted in favor of a law banning conversion therapy, a pseudoscientific practice that seeks to change traits of LGBT people. For example, some conversion therapy methods aim to change a gay man’s orientation and turn him into a heterosexual man.

Joint List parliamentarians protested that their disagreement with Mansour Abbas was about his willingness to collaborate with Netanyahu, not his stance on LGBT rights. In fact, senior Joint List parliamentarian Ahmad Tibi took massive criticism in mainstream Jewish media for his own anti-gay statements leading up to the election.

But Ra’am again and again found ways to return the public conversation to controversial social issues. One liberal Joint List parliamentarian, outspoken feminist Aida Touma-Sliman, became a lightning rod for criticism by the conservative Islamists. Several activists in both the Joint List and Ra’am estimated in conversations with The Times of Israel that Touma-Sliman’s progressive activism had cost the Joint List some support.

Misplaced elation

When Abbas broke off from the Joint List in early February, most commentators dismissed the possibility that he would manage to re-enter the Knesset. It was an enormous gamble: His party had not run without partnering with one of the other major Arab parties — which includes Hadash, Palestinian nationalist Balad, and Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al movement — since 2006.

His goal was clear: To cross the election threshold and become a kingmaker. Israeli politics is currently dominated by two opposing blocs — one supporting Netanyahu and the other opposing him, a rubric which has come to replace political ideology in how parties are seen; most parties’ loyalties to either bloc are well-defined before the elections.

An electoral billboard by the predominantly Arab Israeli electoral alliance the Joint List depicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a caption reading in Arabic “the father of the nation-state law, says ‘a new approach’, whom is he fooling?” is seen above protesters during a demonstration by Arab Israelis in the mostly Arab city of Umm al-Fahm in northern Israel, on March 5, 2021, against organized crime and calling upon the Israeli police to stop a wave of intra-communal violence. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Abbas pitched Ra’am to voters as something different: A genuine free agent which could wield enormous leverage in deciding the election one way or the other. The party’s iconic green posters described it as “a conservative, influential and realistic voice.”

“Abbas hopes that he will be the tie-breaker in the next coalition. Do you know what can be done with four seats? He will have an enormous amount of leverage,” Arik Rudnitsky, an expert in Arab Israeli politics, told The Times of Israel in January, calling it “a brilliant maneuver.”

Late on Tuesday night, the Joint List and Ra’am gathered in their respective party headquarters in northern Israel to watch the publication of exit polls. When all three main news broadcasts showed Ra’am failing to pass the 3.25% threshold, a roar of elation tore through the crowd at the Joint List’s event.

But the elation came too soon. Come Wednesday morning, with most votes counted, the conservative Islamists had swept into the Knesset with at least four seats. The Joint List, meanwhile, had been nearly halved from its projected showing: from 11 seats to 6.

Abbas, against all odds, has pulled off his gambit. For the first time, an Arab party may truly hold the keys to the government. But now that he has the leverage he sought, the challenge for him will be knowing how to use it.

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