By Ramzy Baroud
At a glance, it may appear that the new split among the Arab political parties in Israel is consistent with the typical pattern of political and ideological divisions that have afflicted the Arab body politic for many years. This time, however, the reasons behind the split are quite different.
As Israel readies for its fourth general election in less than two years, scheduled for March 23, Israel’s Palestinian Arab parties seem to be in a position of power, slated to become the kingmaker in the country’s future coalition government. But something peculiar has happened. The Joint List, which has successfully united the Arab vote in previous elections, suffered a major setback last month with the departure of the United Arab List (Ra’am).
Ra’am is the political arm of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. It entered the April 2019 elections in a coalition with the National Democratic Alliance (Balad). In September 2019 and again in March 2020, it was part of the Joint List, an Arab alliance that then also included the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash) and the Arab Movement for Renewal (Ta’al).
Despite their ideological divides and different socioeconomic visions, the Arab parties in Israel have felt that their unity is more important than ever before. There are reasons for this. Israel has been rapidly moving to the right, meaning ultranationalist and religious groups now represent mainstream politics. The center, which temporarily unified under the banner of Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) at the last election, has actively promoted a similar discourse to Israel’s traditional right. Meanwhile, the left has disintegrated and now plays an unprecedentedly marginal role, with little or no impact on Israeli politics.
As the Israeli right has grown emboldened in recent years, various anti-Arab laws have been passed by the right-dominated Knesset. The most obvious example is the so-called “nation-state law,” which elevates the exclusive identity of Israel as a Jewish state, while devaluing Palestinian Arab rights, religion and language.
In the September 2019 elections, Arab unity finally paid dividends as the Joint List won 13 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. In April 2020, the united Arab parties performed even better, emerging — for the first time in Israel’s history — as the country’s third-largest political bloc after Likud and Kahol Lavan with 15 seats.
Clearly, the Arab parties were ready to engage in the political process, not as marginal forces but as active participants. Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, made several overtures to Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Kahol Lavan. Odeh reasoned that, with the help of the Joint List, a centrist-led coalition would finally be able to dislodge right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power.
However, Gantz refused to allow Arab parties into his government coalition, preferring instead to seek common ground with his arch-enemy, Netanyahu. Together they formed a unity government in May 2020, which only lasted for seven months.
By refusing to incorporate the Joint List, Gantz took the first step toward destroying his promising centrist coalition, which at that time included Yesh Atid and Telem. The leaders of these two factions officially split from Kahol Lavan soon after Gantz agreed to the Netanyahu union. In this month’s elections, Yesh Atid will be running independently, while Telem decided to refrain from entering the election fray altogether, reportedly so as not to further splinter the opposition’s votes.
From a strategic point of view, this would have been the most opportune moment for the Joint List to finally translate its electoral progress into political success. There is a growing realization in Israel that a coalition government, even if one is formed, would remain unsustainable without Arab support. Consequently, the country’s leading political camps are openly jockeying to court the Arab parties.
Indeed, Netanyahu — who in 2015 used fear-mongering to rally the right behind him by saying that Arab voters were “heading to the polling stations in droves” — is now turning around. During a visit to the Arab city of Nazareth in January, he claimed that his previous comments were misinterpreted. In other Arab towns, he boasted of his record in support of Arab communities and in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. His anti-Arab rhetoric is currently at an all-time low.
The centrist Yair Lapid, of Yesh Atid, has also shown willingness to work with Arab politicians, stating in January that “it was a loss that we did not do it in the current Knesset,” referring to Gantz’s rejection of Arab endorsement and the exclusion of Arabs from the coalition government.
However, instead of taking advantage of their electoral success, the Joint List has once again splintered; or, more precisely, the important Ra’am party has left the coalition. This time, the fragmentation was not due to ideological differences, but was rather the result of the bewildering position of Ra’am’s leader, Mansour Abbas.
Abbas last month indicated his willingness to join a Netanyahu-led coalition. He justified his shocking turnabout with unconvincing political platitudes, saying that one “needs to be able to look to the future, and to build a better future for everyone,” and so on. The fact that Netanyahu is largely responsible for the despairing outlook for the Israeli Arabs seems entirely irrelevant to Abbas, who is inexplicably keen on joining any future political alliance, even if it includes Israel’s most chauvinistic political actors. Right-wing newspaper the Jerusalem Post summed up Abbas’ devastating blow to Arab unity just before the elections with the headline: “Meet Mansour Abbas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unlikely ally.”
According to a recent poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 13, Abbas’ Ra’am party could potentially control four Knesset seats following the March elections. But it is also plausible that Ra’am might fail to achieve the required 3.25 percent threshold of votes, thus earning no political representation in the Knesset whatsoever. Either way, Abbas’ obviously self-serving folly could cost Arab parties a historic and unmatched opportunity to assert themselves as a decisive political force that could challenge Israeli racism and Palestinian Arab marginalization.
Now that all electoral alliances have been finalized, Abbas has clearly made the wrong choice and, no matter the outcome, he has already lost.