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Arab-Israeli legislator emerges as kingmaker

If the current numbers hold and the Raam Party gets four Knesset seats, its leader Mansour Abbas could hold the key to choosing the country’s next prime minister.

Knesset member Mansour Abbas woke up this morning with four Knesset seats in his pocket. Last night's vote tally had seemed to promise him five, but as the count continued his Raam party lost one. With 95.6% of the votes counted this number can still change, but it seems clear that Raam will be in the next Knesset.

Raam's achievement is dramatic on several levels. On March 23, for the fourth time in two years, Israelis were called to the voting booth. As things seem now, there is once again no decisive outcome and it is unclear whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his many rivals will be able to put together a government. Much hinges now on Raam and the choice Abbas will have to make.

Pre-election polls had predicted that Raam would not pass the 3.25% electoral threshold. He decided a few months ago to adopt a new approach, refusing to make do with simply getting elected to the Knesset like his former colleagues in the Joint List. He envisioned a new path forward for Israel’s Arab public. This decision to split from the Joint List and run alone was risky.

At first it looked like Abbas' new strategy had failed, with early exit polls predicting his party wouldn’t win any seats. That all changed as the hours ticked away. As of this writing, Abbas looks like a winner, while the three parties that make up the current Joint List (Hadash, Ta’al and Balad) are expected to win six seats in total.

If these numbers hold, they will reshuffle the deck. Abbas could turn out to be the ultimate kingmaker between the pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu blocs. The Netanyahu camp seems to have won 59 Knesset seats and needs two more for a majority.

We’re not in anybody’s pocket” became Raam’s refrain as early as several months ago. It looks like it worked, and may have been exactly what the Arab population had been wanting for. Arab citizens want to bargain with both sides and raise the value of Arab representation in the Knesset and pass the kind of legislation that will benefit their voters.

What changed this time around? What code did Abbas and his party crack? Raam campaign manager Aaed Kayal explained to Al-Monitor, "The goal of Raam’s campaign was to initiate political dialogue, not only within Arab society, but also on the right and the left. This would put the party and the Arab citizens it represents at the center of the public discourse. This dialogue got the entire country to talk about Mansour Abbas and also about Raam’s new approach to politics, which overwhelmed its main competitor for the Arab vote. The Joint List may be made up of three established parties, but this time around, they found themselves outside the political game.”

This strategy also points to the Arab population's frustration about the Arab parties’ traditional political discourse, which hasn’t changed in decades.

After the Joint List's dizzying success in the 2020 election, in which it won 15 seats, the coalition lost touch with the Arab electorate, which is more concerned about day-to-day problems. In this election, Arab voters were less interested in replacing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They remembered what happened last time, when Defense Minister Benny Gantz and the Blue and White Party turned their back to them and formed a government with Netanyahu after campaigning to oust him. The center-left failed to realize that there can be no government without Arab representation.