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Analysis

Returning to coalition at pinnacle of tension, Ra’am aims to solidify paradigm shift

Islamist party leader Mansour Abbas chose this particularly fraught week to support a flagging government, in a gamble that is at once practical and ideological

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Ra'am leader MK Mansour Abbas delivers a statement to the press at the Knesset, May 11, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Ra'am leader MK Mansour Abbas delivers a statement to the press at the Knesset, May 11, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

If there were ever a moment to believe Mansour Abbas’s mantra that he and his Ra’am party are serious about leading a paradigm shift that will remake the integration of Arab society within Israel — that time might be now.

During the three weeks that Ra’am kept Israeli politics on the edge of its seat, by freezing its participation in a coalition that would have become a minority without it, shifting circumstances only made it more complicated for the Islamist Arab party to come back.

As the days went by and the government’s internal troubles grew, many even wondered whether the party had a coalition to return to. During Ra’am’s timeout, the Likud-led opposition made countless claims that it was on the verge of prying away additional defectors from the coalition or laying out paths to the Knesset’s dissolution and new elections. Those efforts hit a crescendo this past Wednesday with the planned submission of a bill to dissolve the Knesset. This created a state of widespread political stress that led some to believe the very fears of government collapse could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the bill was pulled at the eleventh hour: Likud realized it did not actually have the votes to pass it, because Ra’am was set to vote with the coalition…

Tensions and unrest at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, which caused much outrage among Ra’am’s voter base, had been the stated reason for the party’s step back. Ra’am had apparently hoped that during its few weeks outside the government, the issue would die down. But the matter remained far from resolved during the timeout, and Ra’am’s call for Jordan’s voice in determining a clear, acceptable status quo for the holy hilltop was met by a blunt refusal by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to submit to foreign dictates about policy at the site.

Putting further pressure on Abbas, Hamas terror group leader Yahya Sinwar labeled him “Abu Righal,” after a legendary pre-Islamic traitor, for “serv[ing] as a support to this government which violates Al-Aqsa.” The subsequent threats that Abbas received necessitated increased security at his family home.

Compounding all that, on Wednesday morning, hours before Ra’am was slated to deliver its decision on how it would proceed with the current government, tragedy struck. Veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed while covering a military operation and ensuing firefights between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank city of Jenin. She was shot in the head by an unidentified party under circumstances still in dispute. The outcries from the Arab street, the Palestinian Authority and even Ra’am were instantaneous, and the party pushed its planned press conference back by several hours in response.

Israeli security at the scene of an attempted terror attack near the Temple Mount compound, in Jerusalem’s Old City. May 11, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The situation on Wednesday morning was so tense that Kamil Rayan, who is involved in the leadership of the Islamic Movement that stands behind Ra’am, told The Times of Israel just an hour before Ra’am’s press conference that “the murder of the journalist, to my estimation, could have changed some opinions, maybe in the direction of thinking that the government has finished its days.” Rayan called Abu Akleh’s death a “murder,” in line with several other Arab and Palestinian leaders.

And then, at the very peak of this storm, Abbas, flanked by his party’s three other parliamentarians, walked out to the press in the Knesset and announced that Ra’am would, in fact, be giving the coalition another chance.

“We’ve come to a conclusion that Ra’am, with the [advisory] Shura Council and the Islamic Movement, will give a chance to coming back and fulfilling our obligations to the coalition agreement,” Abbas said.

This decision, taken under great political risk and despite divisions within Ra’am and its religious home in the Islamic Movement, included some tangible achievements, such as recognition of five new villages in the Negev, budgetary wins, and government promises to work to calm the Temple Mount with the participation of Jordan’s king, as reported on Thursday by Army Radio.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II ibn Al-Hussein speaks at a news conference after talks at the Chancellery, in Berlin, Germany, on March 15, 2022. (Hannibal Hanschke/Pool via AP, File)

But these are just gateways to the deeper reason that Abbas and Ra’am returned to the coalition against all odds: The party is trying to carve a new path forward for Arabs in Israel, and it is gambling that now is the time to go all in.

‘If it fails, that’s it’

When Ra’am entered the coalition 11 months ago, it flipped the operating model of Arab politics on its head. Whereas the majority-Arab Joint List and its constituent parties — Ta’al, Hadash and Balad — have traditionally stuck to a dissenting role in politics, putting Palestinian national aspirations above nearly all else, Ra’am decided to focus on civil wins, choosing engagement and active participation in order to be a part of building a more equitable Israel.

In a pre-taped interview that aired on Wednesday night, Abbas told Channel 12 that Ra’am wanted “to build a new and worthy relationship — just, equal, humanist — between Jews and Arabs.”

On Thursday morning, following Ra’am’s return to the coalition, party MK Walid Taha told Army Radio that: “We provided an opportunity for the State of Israel, for the Israeli government, to begin a process to change the attitude of the state towards Arab society.

“We’re bringing a different politics, not just for Arab society, but also for Jewish society. To improve urgent and acute issues.”

He added: “You can bring a lot of examples from history that you don’t like, that I wouldn’t like either, about disputes, things that have happened. We’re looking forward.”

Ra’am has also been polling poorly in the last week, not reaching the minimum threshold to enter the Knesset, though Arab political analyst Ehab Jabareen believes it is likely close to doing so.

In the context of concerning polls and a desire to bring tangible results, Ra’am’s return to the fold is more easily understood: If Ra’am loses this chance to prove its political experiment works better than the Joint List’s usual methods, it might not get another opportunity.

Ra’am leader MK Mansour Abbas (C) delivers a statement to the press at the Knesset, with fellow party MKs Walid Taha (L) and Mazen Ghanaim (R) standing by, May 11, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Analyst Mohammad Magadli took this position on Army Radio on Thursday morning, saying: “Mansour Abbas said something very simple and it was also said at the Shura Council. ‘This is a historic step that we’ve led, not just Mansour Abbas and Ra’am, but also the Islamic Movement. If it fails, that’s it. That’s our last stop in trying to integrate into Israeli society and Israeli politics, in Israeli legitimacy.’”

Kamil Rayan agreed that this was a critical moment.

“Arab society, if it sees this experience fail, it would bring it to frustration and a dark place,” the Islamic Movement insider said. “If Mansour — with what he gave, and what he invested, and what he repaired, and how he involved himself and his family, which is now under threat from Israeli fascists or Arab Islamic State supporters — if he didn’t succeed, then who will succeed?”

In a grim prediction, Rayan equated Ra’am’s effort with the broader stability of Arab-Jewish relations. “If this experiment doesn’t work, we’ll meet next year in another Operation Guardians of the Walls and with a lot of blood in the streets of Israel,” he said, referring to 2021’s days of violence between Israel and Gaza but also between Jews and Arabs on Israel’s streets.

Magadli added that there was another political consideration to Ra’am’s decision: The Joint List, which lent the coalition a hand on Monday to defeat two opposition-led no-confidence motions, has been softening its stance somewhat on cooperating with the coalition. Ra’am wants to be the address for Arab society, and fear of its rival tiptoeing onto the path that Ra’am trailblazed may have helped tip the scales.

Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh of the Arab Joint List during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem, on July 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“There was one thing that changed everything at the last moment, and that was the connection between the Joint List and [coalition leaders Yair] Lapid and [Benny] Gantz. Mansour Abbas comes to the Shura Council and says ‘Look, they’re doing what we’ve been doing, they’re already in contact. If we’re leaving the coalition just to fold afterward to the Joint List, then be my guest,’” Magadli said.

Looking toward the next government

Perhaps one of the most interesting threads in Ra’am’s quest for legitimacy in mainstream politics is Abbas’s desire to ultimately be able to ally with Likud, a party that is currently demonizing both him and his constituency.

Asked by a Channel 12 reporter whether joining a future coalition with Israel’s largest party would be the real victory, Abbas said “yes.”

“Because at the end of the day, what do we want to do?” he said, alluding to gaining greater acceptance.

During last year’s negotiations that ultimately led to the creation of the current eclectic, big tent coalition, Abbas and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu engaged in an extensive courtship. While Netanyahu now calls Ra’am “terror supporters,” only 11 months ago, the Likud leader koshered the idea of bringing Ra’am into the coalition (Abbas noted on Wednesday that he has documented correspondence to prove solicitation from Netanyahu and other Likud officials).

It’s not hard to imagine a situation in which the leading right-wing party’s rhetoric and attitude could once again flip, should it become politically convenient, which would do much to legitimize the party in greater Israeli society.

Abbas’s great experiment would have a better chance of succeeding if this government lasts long enough to enable Ra’am to bring tangible wins back to Ra’am’s base. But if it doesn’t, its commitment to the coalition also serves the purpose of advertising the party as a reliable partner to the next one.

Political analyst Ehab Jabareen (Courtesy)

“Abbas is looking toward the next government, not this one,” said political analyst Jabareen, and Abbas is proving it by coming back to a coalition, even in its hour of weakness. “To the next government, he’s saying, ‘I’m an MK and a party that you can rely upon. You can trust me, I don’t create problems.’”

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