Surrounded by camera flashes at a luxury hotel in Ramat Gan, conservative Islamist leader Ra’am Mansour Abbas made history Wednesday night when he became the first Israeli Arab party leader in half a century to sign a deal to sit in a coalition government.
“This is the first time that an Arab party has participated in the process of forming a government. We of course hope that this will work and that a government rises after four rounds of elections, ”Abbas said.
Even before Raam announced his signing, the fledgling coalition was widely considered the largest in the country’s history, uniting left-to-right parties supporting the settlement aimed at toppling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud faction.
To achieve this, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett and centrist Yesh Atid leader Yair Atid agreed to a rotation schedule, with Bennett becoming prime minister for the first two years.
Despite the wide range of views in the so-called “change of government,” Abbas said he had agreed on many plans and budgets in Arab-Israeli society with his constellation counterparts. parties seeking to overthrow Netanyahu.
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“We have reached a critical mass of agreements in various fields which serve the interests of Arab society and which provide solutions to the burning problems of Arab society – planning, the housing crisis and, of course, combating the violence and organized crime, ”Abbas said. .
Abbas promised that many profits would go to the Negev region in southern Israel. Ra’am base is part of the traditional Bedouin communities of the Negev Desert.
Ra’am said the so-called change bloc has accepted more than 53 billion shekels ($ 16.3 billion) into government budgets and development plans for Arab society.
According to a statement from the Islamist party, Bennett and Lapid pledged NIS 30 billion over five years in unspecified economic development funds, as well as an additional NIS 2.5 million ($ 770,000) to fight violence and crime organized in Arab society.
An additional 20 million shekels ($ 6 million) will be invested over the next 10 years to repair crumbling infrastructure in Arab towns and villages, Ra’am said.
Three unrecognized Bedouin villages – Abda, Khashm al-Zena and Rakhma – are expected to be legalized in a government decision, according to Ra’am.
The party said it also got the coalition’s agreement to discuss amending the controversial Kaminitz law of 2017, which targets illegal Arab constructions and is widely seen by Arabs as discriminatory. In the meantime, a decision already in place to freeze parts of the law will be extended until 2024.
Abbas said Ra’am was the last to sign the deal, pending other refractory parties, including Naftali Bennett’s Yamina, to sign it as well.
For decades, Arab Israeli parties have almost always remained outside the decision-making process of Israeli politics. Jewish parties rejected them as extremists, while they themselves were often skeptical of joining an Israeli government that they see as second-class citizens and oppress Palestinians.
Under Abbas, Ra’am has in recent months started to forge a different path, working openly with Netanyahu’s government. After leaving the Common List of Arab Parties, Ra’am stood alone on a platform of willingness to influence change from within by being open to joining a government, with the aim of making political progress. tangible for its community.
This included being ready to join right-wing leader Yamina Bennett, who opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and has long been identified with the settlements movement.
“For decades, Arab Israelis have been without influence. Now everyone knows that we are the decisive voices when it comes to politics, ”Ra’am MP Walid Taha told a reporter for the Arabic-language channel Hala TV.
Only twice have Arab Israeli parties supported an Israeli government. In the 1950s, a small faction made up of an Arab parliamentarian joined the coalition. The faction was far from independent, operating primarily as an Arab franchise of the ruling socialist party in Israel, Mapai.
In the 1990s, when the government of left-wing Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin was in danger of collapsing, Arab parties intervened to prevent a vote of no confidence.
But in recent years, major Arab parties have started to push for support for a center-left government to overthrow Netanyahu. As late as March 2020, the Joint List hoped to use its 15 MPs to bring Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to power.
Instead, Gantz gave the Joint List a cold shoulder and struck a weak coalition deal with Netanyahu, a move he would later publicly deplore.
The nascent government’s membership of Ra’am remains extremely controversial among parts of the Israeli right-wing, including among Bennett’s own voters.
Hundreds of protesters gathered outside a hotel in Ramat Gan where negotiations were taking place to call on the right-wing change bloc parties – such as Yamina, New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu – to withdraw. The demonstrators held signs telling parties “not to form a government with supporters of terrorism”.
“How can this government defend us from the Iranian nuclear threat? went another sign held by a right-wing protester.
Some in Netanyahu’s camp were skeptical that the various promises of the change bloc in Ra’am would materialize.
“This is all empty talk. These are lies. What did they get? Just political games, ”exclaimed Likud MP Fateen Mulla during a phone call with The Times of Israel.
The political wing of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Ra’am is guided by a deeply conservative Islamic ideology and has a virulent homophobic outlook. Its lawmakers also hold pro-Palestinian views; the party’s charter supports the right of return of Palestinian refugees and considers Zionism to be a “racist thought of the occupier”.
But in late 2020, Abbas stunned Arab and Jewish Israelis when he began to seek closer ties to Netanyahu, a figure many Arab Israelis incited against them.
Abbas urged the prime minister to address a Knesset committee he headed, backed him in a controversial parliamentary vote, and in return sought to secure public commitments from Netanyahu for the legislative priorities of the Arab community.
“There is only one prime minister, and that is Netanyahu. It is the address of these requests, ”Abbas told The Times of Israel in December.
After months of increasingly public infighting, Abbas left the Joint List in early February. Many commentators speculated at the time that Islamists would not receive enough votes to cross Israel’s electoral threshold. The United Arab List, originally made up of three Arab parties plus Ra’am, has been the main force in Israeli Arab politics since its formation in 2015.
His goal was clear: to cross the threshold of elections and become a kingmaker. Israeli politics are currently dominated by two opposing blocs – one supporting Netanyahu and the other opposing him, a rubric that has come to replace political ideology in the way parties are viewed; the loyalty of most parties to one or the other bloc was well defined before the elections, with only Raam and Yamina refusing to join either camp.
Abbas presented Ra’am to voters as a true free agent who could wield tremendous power to decide the election one way or the other. The party’s iconic green posters described him as “a conservative, influential and realistic voice.”
In a surprising turn of events, the March 2021 elections gave Ra’am four terms, making it the largest Arab party in the country. The three parties of the United Arab List received a total of six seats in the Knesset, divided among them.
More importantly, the coalition’s calculations made it highly unlikely that a government could be formed without the Islamists.
Netanyahu has repeatedly denied seeking Abbas’s support during the election campaign. But after the elections left him with an almost impossible situation, he nevertheless hoped to form a government with Ra’am’s backing.
The longtime prime minister’s efforts were hampered, however, when Ra’am and the far-right religious Zionist party both ruled out sitting together in a coalition. Netanyahu was unable to bring potential center-right partners to his side, and the mandate was given to Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.
Many Ra’am voters probably would have preferred Lapid over far-right Naftali Bennett. Coalition negotiations have also been complicated by rising violence in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
In early May, Israeli police clashed with Palestinian worshipers at Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, and at Damascus Gate, injuring hundreds with rubber-tipped steel bullets. .
While police said they acted to prevent a riot, many Arab Israelis saw it as an attack on Muslim sovereignty over the Temple Mount flashpoint, which is also Judaism’s holiest site.
Ra’am’s religious conservative voters felt the blow particularly deeply. At the same time, potential Ra’am coalition partners, including Bennett and Lapid, backed the police.
Tensions have also increased over the imminent expulsion of Arabs from Jaffa and the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Their homes were to be occupied by right-wing Jewish nationalists.
When open war broke out between Israel and Hamas and mob violence spilled over into mixed Arab-Jewish towns, Ra’am temporarily froze ongoing attempts to join the government in order to wait for that. Things happen.
But even at the height of the chaos, Ra’am party officials close to Abbas remained optimistic that as soon as events calmed down, negotiations would resume.
By the time Abbas arrived at the Kfar Maccabiah hotel to conclude negotiations on Wednesday evening, Ra’am’s participation in the coalition was already almost a given.
“The most important thing is to get to a point where we can achieve what we want,” Abbas said.