When Ra’am party chief Mansour Abbas and his three fellow Ra’am MKs decided to enable the formation of the Bennett-Lapid government by joining the coalition, the decision was rightly hailed as historic. While Arab parties had previously supported Israeli coalitions from the outside, no independent Arab political party had ever sat in an Israeli coalition until Ra’am broke the barrier. Many viewed Abbas’ decision not merely as historic but as a permanent game changer, paving the way for an Israeli political future in which Arab parties would routinely be part of governing coalitions and where litmus tests designed to permanently consign Arab parties to the opposition or render them as illegitimate partners would be things of the past.
Of course, nothing in politics is permanent or static. Anyone who has watched the progression, for instance, of U.S. Senate confirmation proceedings for Supreme Court justices—where we have gone from a world in which current Justices Stephen Breyer and John Roberts were confirmed by respective margins of 87-9 and 78-22 to a world in which it is unlikely that any justice will be confirmed in the foreseeable future if one party controls the White House and the other controls the Senate—knows that predictions of permanency are ephemeral. In Israeli politics’ case, this week will determine the trajectory of Ra’am’s move last June, which in turn will determine the trajectory of whether the experiment of Arab parties in Israeli coalitions will be a blip in time or a regular feature for years to come.
During the Knesset recess that ended this week, Abbas and Ra’am suspended their participation in the Bennett-Lapid coalition as a result of events surrounding the Temple Mount and al-Aqsa. What has made Ra’am unique among Arab parties is its pragmatic approach to Israeli politics that has deemphasized ideological stands in favor of tangible victories, directly comparable to the decision made by Haredi political parties decades ago when they realized that they could either prioritize religious ideological opposition to Zionism or capture their share of state budgets and benefits, but not both. The fact that Ra’am suspended its participation rather than leaving the coalition altogether, and the fact that Ra’am decided on Wednesday to return to the coalition rather than support the Likud’s motion to dissolve the Knesset, are both examples of the pragmatic approach winning out, despite the pressure on Abbas to shift course.
The issues that Ra’am prioritizes are related to its base and their core concerns. Ra’am’s voting strength is in the Negev, which is why in order to join the coalition, Ra’am’s asks were about allocating a larger budget to Negev communities, passing a bill to legally hook up unpermitted Negev homes to electricity, and recognizing Bedouin villages that were built without development plans. Ra’am is also an Islamist political party that has its own shura council—again similar to the Council of Torah Sages that makes decisions for UTJ—and it is therefore highly sensitive to the situation in al-Aqsa and maintaining its interpretation of the status quo. Ra’am’s suspension of its coalition activities came in response to the sentiment that increasing numbers of Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount openly praying on the compound threatened the nature of the site. Unlike the rest of its former Joint List partners, Ra’am is not focused on Palestinian issues in the West Bank and Gaza to the same extent, and while it does not dismiss concerns about Israeli policies, its true red lines have to do with its budgetary priorities and its religious—rather than nationalist—sensibilities.
Both of these issues should be relatively easy for any Israeli government to accommodate. While there has been much effort on the Israeli right and in the opposition to define the crime, funding, and electricity issues in the Negev as a nationalist threat first and foremost, it is really an issue of budget allocations and how much money the government is willing to spend to fix some of the problems. These are questions of funding, not questions of nationalism or ideology. Religious sensitivities surrounding arrangements on the Temple Mount are far thornier, but there too it is a question of maintaining a settled policy that has reigned for decades. There are arguments to be made for revisiting the status quo—and I have previously stressed the fundamental unfairness at work in the policy and the sacrifice it requires from Israel—but the cost-benefit analysis here involves keeping a current policy in place rather than giving up something new or making further concessions. Turning every single policy decision into an existential threat to Israel and its Jewish character is designed to obfuscate the simple reality that keeping a pragmatic, conservative Arab party in the coalition shouldn’t be that hard, and to shift the Overton window of acceptability even further.
And the Overton window has indeed shifted. Had the possibility been floated ten years ago that an Arab party would join a coalition without a laser-like focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that the party’s leader would publicly declare that Israel is a Jewish state and will remain so, every single Jewish political party would have jumped at the chance to form a government with that party and to boost its leader. If that leader faced a crisis within his party that required him to suspend its participation in the coalition, as Abbas did, and then made a set of demands that Israel had already agreed to, it would be viewed as a no-brainer to accommodate them.
Instead, we have Prime Minister Naftali Bennett making bombastic statements about foreign interference on the Temple Mount designed to undermine Abbas’ determination that Ra’am will support any understandings between Israel and Jordan regarding the site, which has not only been Israeli government policy but is backed by the Israel-Jordan peace treaty that explicitly gives Jordan the role of administering the site. We have Likud issuing a statement alleging that the existence of Ra’am’s shura council means that the current government is supported by terrorists, notwithstanding the fact that Abbas last month explicitly condemned terrorist attacks on Israelis and also called out Joint List head Ayman Odeh for suggesting that Israeli Arabs quit their jobs with the Israeli police. Aside from Yair Lapid, few Israeli politicians seem to see what is at stake if someone like Abbas—who is searching for reasons to stick around despite Ra’am’s falling poll numbers amidst evidence that its voters see it as toothless—cannot make it in an Israeli coalition for even a year.
Bennett has political motivations to push Abbas to quit, since if the government is brought down by someone from Lapid’s bloc, Bennett will remain interim prime minister during the election campaign and until a new government is formed. If Bennett’s calculations are that the government is on its last legs, better for him to give Abbas a nudge out the door now rather than risk another defection from Yamina or from New Hope. Binyamin Netanyahu obviously wants to do everything he can to portray Abbas and Ra’am as illegitimate, since his goal is to bring the government down and head to new elections while he is strong in the polls. But if this is indeed what happens, it won’t be cost-free in the long term.
It cannot be stressed enough how much the future integration of Arab parties into Israel’s political system depends on what happens next. If Abbas and Ra’am are deemed by Jewish parties as beyond the pale or too heavy-handed in their demands, and deemed by their voters as not strident enough and as quasi-Zionist quislings, it will be a very long time before we see Arab politics in Israel again attempt to move beyond symbolic protest. Anyone who wants to see those celebrations of Arab integration into Israel’s political system from last June pay off should be urging all reasonable measures be taken to ensure Ra’am’s continued participation in the Bennett-Lapid coalition.