By P R Kumaraswamy,
The most interesting aspect of the new Bennett-Lapid government in Israel is the emergence of Mansour Abbas, leader of the Islamic Movement or Ra’am Party, as the kingmaker. Ra’am has the lowest number of seats (four MKs in the 61-member ruling coalition) but broke the psychological Arab barrier against cooperating with Zionist parties. Ra’am did have some anxious moment before the Knesset vote on Monday when Saeed al-Harumi, its Bedouin Member of Knesset (MK), abstained over a last-minute move by the Netanyahu government for a possible demolition of Bedouin houses in the Negev built without proper authorisation.
Incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told the Knesset that his government would be inclusive and “will open a new page in the relations between the State of Israel and the country’s Arab citizens. The Arab community will be represented in the coalition by Mansour Abbas and his party.” In having Ra’am in the coalition, Bennett also recognised the contribution of outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “who held a groundbreaking series of meetings with Mansour Abbas, who reached out a hand.” Bennett pledged to “fight against crime and violence, the housing crisis, the gaps in education and infrastructure” in the Arab sector.
In the Israeli context, the term Arabs denotes all the non-Jewish minorities, namely, Muslim groups (Arabs Bedouins, Chechens, Circassians), Christians and Druze, who make up about a fifth of the total population. For a host of historical reasons, mostly due to the conflict with the wider Arab world, the minorities were excluded from power-sharing. Equal political and social rights are not accompanied by having Arab parties as full members of the ruling coalition. While there were non-Jewish cabinet members in the past, until now, Arab parties were never part of the ruling Israeli coalition.
During the March Knesset election Abbas presented himself as a moderate and pragmatic leader who is prepared to engage with and partake in governance. To pursue this agenda, he frequently met Prime Minister Netanyahu and even declared his willingness to join a government headed by the Likud leader. This controversial position contributed to the breakup of the four-party Joint Arab List that contested the Knesset elections in recent years. The division dented the strength of the Arab parties; in March 2020, the Joint List secured 15 seats and was the third-largest party in the 120-member Knesset, but in March this year, the divided Arab lists could secure only ten seats, including four won by Ra’am.
However, Ra’am transformed the political landscape of Israel. The coalition agreement between Ra’am and Yesh Atid (the largest party in the coalition) promised a deputy ministerial post in the Prime Minister’s Office, head of the Knesset Interior Committee, a deputy Knesset speaker and head of the Arab Affairs Committee. Moreover, the government would allocate NIS 30 billion (US$9.2 billion) through 2026 to “reduce gaps in Arab, Druze, Circassian and Bedouin society.” This would include a five-year crime-fighting plan worth NIS 2.5 billion; a NIS 20 billion plan for transportation infrastructure; extension of a freeze on building restrictions in the Bedouin communities until the end of 2024; and recognition of three Bedouin communities in the Negev within 45 days of the formation of the government. The coalition agreement to establish another hospital in the south will also benefit the Bedouins in the Negev.
The entry of Ra’am opened further avenues. The left-wing Meretz has named Issawi Frej, an Israeli Arab politician, as its nominee for regional cooperation ministry. Internal disagreement within Yisrael Beitenu resulted in its leader Avigdor Liberman naming Druze MK Hamed Amer as the second minister in the finance ministry. In addition, PMO will also have a Druze member belonging to Yamina.
Amidst the recent Israel-Hamas conflict, a synagogue was destroyed in Lod in the Arab-Jewish riots. Visiting the mixed city afterwards, Abbas criticised vandalism and pledged that the Israeli Arabs would ‘lead’ efforts to repair and rebuild the synagogues. His declaration came amidst the Israeli airstrikes against the Gaza Strip and did not go down well among a large segment of the Arab population, but Abbas stood his ground.
The new Jewish-Arab political cohabitation will not be easy. Prime Minister Bennett already faces criticisms from other right-wing parties over Ra’am limiting future security operations against Israel’s adversaries. Ra’am also faces criticisms from other Arab parties, including the communists, for providing legitimacy to the government headed by Bennett, whose Yamina party adopts more hardliner positions than Likud on the peace process. Despite the path-breaking nature of the coalition, the six-member Joint Arab List did not abstain but voted against the Bennett-Lapid government. Their competition with Ra’am for Arab voters has overwhelmed the larger interests of the Arab community.
The inauguration of the Bennett-Lapid government means that cohabitation of rightwing-Arab Islamist parties is now kosher in Israel. Despite the fragility and the long and arduous journey ahead, Mansour Abbas co-authors a new chapter in Israeli democracy.
(The author teaches contemporary Middle East in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)