When the Knesset voted 61-56 on Wednesday in favor of a preliminary motion to dissolve parliament and go to new elections, the mostly Arab Joint List alliance lined up to vote for the move, in the hopes of toppling a prime minister the faction said in a statement was “a catastrophe.”
But MK Mansour Abbas, who leads the party representing the political wing of the Southern Islamic Movement, known as Ra’am, was absent from the chamber along with the three other members of his party, causing widespread criticism from his colleagues in the Joint List.
The Joint List is made up of four parties — Hadash (5 seats), Ra’am (4 seats), Ta’al (3 seats) and Balad (3 seats) — that united in 2015 in order to ensure they would pass a new, higher Knesset electoral threshold.
The decision by Ra’am to avoid the Knesset vote was interpreted by many observers as a show of potential support for Netanyahu, whose right-wing policies and alleged race-baiting have made him deeply unpopular among much of the Arab public.
Mansour has in recent weeks stunned his Joint List colleagues by suggesting that Arab MKs abandon their traditional rejection of any cooperation with the political right, in favor of a pragmatic approach that seeks more government funds and attention to their communities’ needs regardless of who’s in power.
Abbas told The Times of Israel that going to elections would set back critical, tangible legislative achievements for Arab Israelis, such as a long-awaited government plan to fight organized crime in Arab communities.
Though he stressed he was far from a supporter of the right, Abbas said an election would be counterproductive and only further weaken the center and the left, citing recent polls.
“If we go to elections now, we will see the right take over the Knesset. Netanyahu will make a government under his control with [Yamina party leader] Naftali Bennett. The opportunity to move forward with the government plan to combat violence and crime in Arab municipalities will be lost,” Abbas said in a phone interview.
“The decision of our friends from Ra’am not to vote constitutes a blow to the platform of the Joint List and the constituency!” Joint List MK Heba Yazbak (Balad) wrote on Twitter.
Abbas, however, denied backing Netanyahu, saying that he was not “in the pocket of the right or the pocket of the left.”
“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.
He was referring to the fact that the prime minister is currently on trial in three graft cases.
“There’s only one premier, and that’s Netanyahu. He is the address for these demands,” Abbas said. “And it seems that if there are more elections, it will be Netanyahu, again, who leads the government.”
Wednesday’s dissolution vote set the stage for a fourth round of national elections in two years as Defense Minister Benny Gantz and his Blue and White party broke from the coalition and voted in favor of the measure, though it must still go through committee and pass three more readings in the Knesset before elections are called.
Ra’am’s absence was the latest volley in a weeks-long public spat within the Joint List. Abbas’s party has sparred in recent weeks with the other three parties in the Joint List, increasing speculation that the alliance could fall apart.
Abbas told The Times of Israel that he supported continued unity, however.
“We will preserve the Joint List. We call on all our partners in the Joint List to preserve the unity of the bloc. Our disagreements ought to be resolved within the Joint List, internally,” Abbas said. “We are a founding member of the party. No one can expel us.”
It is not clear how successful Abbas’s attempt at working with the right has been. While Netanyahu publicly pledged to the Ra’am chairman in early November that he would bring the government plan against violence for authorization at a Knesset committee within two weeks, that promise has yet to be fulfilled.
Combating violence and organized crime is a key priority for many Arab voters According to a 2019 study by the Abraham Initiatives nonprofit, which works to advance shared society initiatives in Israel, 60.5 percent of Arab Israelis reported a sense of personal insecurity in their hometowns due to violence, compared with only 35% of Arab Israelis in 2018. By comparison, only 12.8% of Jews reported such a feeling.
The new government plan is a wide-ranging policy effort to end such insecurity, produced in collaboration with Arab mayors, civil society actors, and the Prime Minister’s Office. While some of its proposals have been criticized — such as its emphasis on increasing the recruitment of Arabs into the police force — approving and implementing the plan has long been on the Joint List’s legislative docket.
Abbas blamed the delay in the plan’s approval on the latest push for new elections, contending that the process had ground to a halt as Israel’s politicians turned their attention elsewhere.
“We were supposed to discuss the budgetary issues surrounding the [anti-violence] plan this week, but now we’ve entered this period of political instability and the potential that the government will collapse,” Abbas lamented. “And we need this plan passed as soon as possible.”
Abbas’s warming of relations with Netanyahu has reportedly caused rifts within his own faction. According to Kan news, Ra’am MKs Sa’eed al-Harumi and Iman Khatib-Yasin both wanted to vote in favor of dissolving the Knesset; Al-Harumi was said to have exited the Knesset chamber in a huff.
When asked specifically about the parliamentarians’ dissent, Abbas did not deny the reports. “We have a multitude of opinions in our party,” he said, “But we take our decisions in a democratic fashion, and we follow the decision of the majority.”