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Will only Arab party in Israel’s ruling coalition provide blueprint for others? 

If Ra’am’s experiment as a partner in the government is successful, it could have lasting impact on Israel's political system.
Mansour Abbas (L), head of Israel's conservative Islamic Raam party, attends a Knesset (Parliament) meeting in Jerusalem on July 7, 2021, during which Israeli President-elect Yitzhak Herzog will swear allegiance.

On July 27, Knesset member Aida Touma-Sliman from the Joint List (a unified slate of predominantly Arab parties) was elected for the third time as head of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality.

On the same day, lawmaker Saeed Alharomi from the United Arab List (also known by its Hebrew acronym, Ra'am) was appointed head of the Knesset’s Interior Committee, though with reduced authorities due to a decision to split the committee into three.

These two nominations reflect the differences between the two Arab parties in the Knesset — a difference that runs deep into the Arab political system in Israel. Touma-Sliman will head the committee dealing with an important cause — women’s rights — but will mainly be limited to issuing declarative statements to promote these rights. Alharomi, on the other hand, will head a significant committee with operative powers that deals with day-to-day grievances — including planning and construction plans as well as citizenship issues, rights the Arab society in Israel frequently struggles with.

This dramatic division between these two Arab parties is a recent one and has the potential to impact the Israeli political system as a whole.

Till recently, the Arab parties in Israel have been outside the cycle of decision-making and impact in Israel. They were not considered legitimate partners in the government. The only time they gained some influence was for a limited period of time with Yitzhak Rabin’s government following the Oslo peace agreement in the 1990s.

In 2015 — and due to an amendment that raised the electoral threshold for parties to gain seats in the Knesset from 2% to 3.25% — the four Arab parties in the country were forced to unite into one list led by the charismatic Ayman Odeh. That list got the unprecedented 13 seats in the Knesset and later 15 in the elections of 2020, out of a total of 120 seats.

The substantial electoral achievement in 2015 put the Arab community in euphoria. They wanted to see a conversion of that outcome to involvement, impact and tangible results that would reflect positively on the underprivileged Arab community. The leaders of the Joint List were attentive to their constituencies’ pulse and for the first time recommended President Reuven Rivlin deliver the mandate to form a government to Netanyahu’s opponent, head of Blue and White party Benny Gantz. However, the latter defected, splitting his party and joining Netanyahu to form a government that lasted just nine months.

This caused major disappointment in the Arab community.

Toward the last elections in March 2021, Ra'am split from the joint list, decided to take the risk of not passing the electoral threshold and ran in the Knesset elections separately. Apparently Netanyahu figured out that his only way to break the deadlock in the political system was legitimizing one of the Arab parties so that they would join his coalition after the elections.

He built a special relationship with Mansour Abbas, the head of Ra'am.

As a result, Ra'am took a new stance reflected in their motto: We are neither part of the left wing nor the right wing but will cooperate and partner with whoever will offer answers to the Arab communities’ needs.

Ra'am was willing to swallow frogs that were against the Arab sentiment and stands for the sole purpose of bringing change to the burning matters of the Arab sector: infrastructure in Arab towns and villages, unemployment, illegal building and construction permits, and crime in the streets.

The risk they are taking depends on the size of frogs they are willing to swallow and how the Arab community at large will view them in exchange for enhanced budgets and privileges. Will they support government resolutions further alienating the Palestinians in Gaza or legislation enhancing LGBT rights, something Ra’am has previously opposed?

In the March 2021 elections, Ra’am won four seats in the Knesset. This split weakened the Joint List (which remained a coalition of the three other parties after Ra’am left), and the number of their seats in the Knesset shrunk to only six.

Wide sectors of the Arab community were eager to give the Ra’am experiment a chance.

The Israel-Gaza war in late May 2021 was ignited by the dispute in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem. The arousing Palestinian sympathy and sentiments among Palestinian citizens of Israel during the war threatened to abort Ra’am’s plans and indicate that this approach can’t prevail in a country of conflict.

However, talks resumed after a cease-fire was achieved.

After tiring negotiations, Ra’am leveraged its modest achievement and joined the anti-Netanyahu government. The Joint List stayed in the opposition.

According to Zaher Elias, an election strategist, this pragmatic approach (or opportunist, depending on how you perceive it) of Ra’am has gained popularity among wide segments of the Arab community.

Leaders of the Joint List Oudeh and Ahmad Tibi articulated speeches and media interviews against Ra’am’s new stance; however, their success was limited. The first claimed that Ra’am has lowered the status of the Arab community from citizens to “subjects” who beg for rights just like a consumer community. The second labeled them victims of Stockholm syndrome.

Elias said Ra’am’s plans of getting large budgets for the Arab community have a good chance of succeeding unless a major event disrupts them. That can include disassembly of the government for any reason or due to a renewed wave of crime in the Arab society or renewed form of violence with the Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank or even on the northern front with Lebanon. He doesn’t expect any other tangible achievements for the Arab sector aside from money-related ones. The budget proposal approved by the government on Aug. 2 supports Elias’ assessment, as it indicates that enormous budgets have been allocated to the Arab sector.

If all moves according to Ra’am’s calculations, then Elias expects Ra’am will get six to seven seats in the Knesset in the next elections. Elias sees Tibi as a potential partner to Abbas but predicted big changes in Hadash (the leftist party that leads the Joint List), including personnel changes at the top. He doesn’t expect changes in Balad, which has settled in its niche in opposing any cooperation of this sort with the government.

If Ra’am’s experiment is successful, it could create a total earthquake in the Israeli political system, as for the first time Arab parties will become active players in the political game, changing its form from the inside.

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