No, really: Divided Israel awaits Islamic MK’s speech to set its political fate

After yet another election deadlock, as taboos and promises are broken, the Jewish state eyes the leader of a small Muslim party who may determine the nature of its next government

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamist Ra'am party, prays in the northern town of Maghar on March 26, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamist Ra'am party, prays in the northern town of Maghar on March 26, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

More than a week after yet another deadlocked election, Israel is now waiting on the words of a conservative Islamic politician to potentially determine the identity of its next prime minister and the nature of its next government.

Mansour Abbas, leader of the Ra’am party, who split away from the rest of the “Joint List” alliance of Arab parties ahead of these elections and won four seats, is set to deliver a speech at primetime on Thursday evening in which he may or may not detail his party’s attitude to the State of Israel, and may or may not specify his demands for supporting one or other of Israel’s would-be prime ministers.

Thus far, Abbas has met with several leaders of the so-called “change bloc” that aims to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and with at least one emissary of the incumbent. In an interview with a Turkish news agency on Wednesday, he said he was prepared to back a prime ministerial candidate “in return for improving conditions of the Arab citizens and ending injustice, marginalization and exclusion against them.” He added: “We are negotiating with the right and the left… We stand at the same distance from the two camps, and we are the third camp.”

Some of his advisers say there is simply no way Abbas and his party will sit in a Netanyahu-led coalition that includes such members as the radical right-winger Itamar Ben Gvir of Otzma Yehudit (a faction within the Religious Zionism party), which seeks to expel “disloyal” Arabs from Israel, or even allow such a coalition to gain Knesset approval by abstaining or skipping the vote. To do so, they say, would not only constitute political suicide for Abbas, but would put his life in actual danger, given the fury it would stoke in parts of the Arab community.

Other aides, thus far anonymous, claim he is inclining toward helping Netanyahu retain power, provided the prime minister meets a long list of conditions ranging from the viable, such as funding a serious campaign to eradicate crime in Arab Israeli towns, to the highly improbable, such as amending the so-called Jewish nation-state law which is seen in the Arab community (and part of the Jewish community) as discriminatory.

All of this is, of course, beyond extraordinary: The political direction of the Jewish state apparently resting in the hands of a minor, non-Zionist party established to advance the interests of Muslims. It is also beyond hypocritical, certainly among those today courting Abbas on the political right.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen during a visit at the Western Wall together with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, in Jerusalem’s Old City on April 1, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu, who has maintained a most uncharacteristic public silence on the possible partnership, said numerous times in the run-up to the March 23 vote that it was “out of the question” for him to form a government with Ra’am, whose leader he branded an anti-Zionist.

In 2019, Netanyahu had fumed that his political rivals were ostensibly contemplating an alliance with the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties, at that time including Abbas and Ra’am, calling them “a danger to Israel.” And just a year ago, after a similar deadlock following the March 2020 elections, he stated that the Joint List MKs, still including Abbas, simply had no place in the coalition arithmetic: “The people’s decision is clear,” Netanyahu declared at the time, discussing the distribution of the vote between “the right-wing Zionist camp” and “the left-wing Zionist camp.” The Joint List, “which denigrates our soldiers and opposes the very existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, as the national state of the Jewish people… is of course not part of this equation.”

Then-Blue and White party MKs Yoaz Hendel (left) and Zvi Hauser in the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s then main rival Benny Gantz, it is also worth remembering, was not only unwilling at the time to forge a coalition dependent on the votes of Joint List MKs, but was actively prevented from doing so, since two MKs from his own Blue and White party, Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, made clear they would not support such a government.

The very fact that Zionist parties across the spectrum are openly discussing including an Arab party in a governing coalition breaks a taboo, and can be considered an advance for Arab Israeli emancipation and integration. But the potential shift is more about short-term expediency and self-interest.

Though Ra’am says it supports a two-state solution, Abbas and Ra’am voted with the rest of the Joint List against Israel’s Trump administration-brokered Abraham Accords last year — in parallel with the Palestinian leadership’s rejection of normalized relations with Israel. The former Ra’am MK Ibrahim Sarsur compared Israeli military actions in Gaza to those of the Nazis, urged the liberation of Jerusalem from Israeli control, and took public positions empathetic to Hamas. A partnership with Ra’am would ordinarily be ideologically challenging though not out of the question for the center-left, but complete anathema for the right.

So long as there was zero prospect of the Joint List and its member parties backing him, Netanyahu would have nothing whatsoever to do with them. Just two months ago, Netanyahu attempted to “clarify” his 2015 election day complaint that Arabs were “voting in droves” by claiming, disingenuously, “My intention was not to protest against the fact of Arab citizens voting in elections” but rather “to protest against their voting for the [Arab-majority] Joint List party.”

Now that Netanyahu desperately needs additional support to muster a Knesset majority, and Abbas is at least open to the notion of partnering with him, the Likud leader’s attitude has apparently shifted, with reports over the last few days that Netanyahu is working to convince his nationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies to agree to a government at least temporarily propped up by Ra’am. “In the current situation, we view Mansour Abbas as a potential possibility [for coalition partner],” one of Netanyahu’s closest allies, Likud minister Tzahi Hanegbi, declared last week.

Benny Gantz speaks at a Blue and White party event on March 23, 2021. Flash90)

Gantz, who should know, met Abbas on Tuesday and told him that the minute Netanyahu has used Ra’am’s support to win a Knesset majority, “he will renege on all commitments he gave you, he will dismantle every letter in the coalition agreement.” For his part, Netanyahu on Wednesday issued a public plea to hawkish rivals Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett to “come home” — a call that Sa’ar rebuffed, that Bennett could yet be receptive to, and that in any case could enable Netanyahu to claim he has made every effort to avoid a reliance on Ra’am but has been left with no alternative.

Strikingly, given the new centrality of an Arab political party, it is the low turnout in the Arab sector last week that has kept alive Netanyahu’s chances of retaining power. Between them, the Joint List and Ra’am drew just 380,000 votes, to win just 10 seats; a year ago, running together, they drew 580,000 votes, winning 15 seats.

Strikingly, too, the new focus on Mansour Abbas and Ra’am, and the question of his legitimacy in building a government, has moved the spotlight away from the Religious Zionism party, with its Kahanist Otzma Yehudit and anti-LGBT Noam components. Amid Israel’s surreal coalition-building machinations, their shameful presence in the new Knesset now barely raises an eyebrow.

** An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

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