June 11, 2021

Ra’am Joins the Coalition: A New Era in Israeli Politics?

On June 2nd, Ra’am, the Islamic Party lead by Mansour Abbas, became the first Arab party in Israel’s history to join a governing coalition. Ra’am is one of eight parties  in the ‘change bloc’  brought together by Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) to form a narrow governing coalition, which, if sworn in, will succeed Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years as Israel’s prime minister. The parties represent a broad, and often conflicting, cross-section of Israeli politics, with Naftali Bennet from the right-wing Yamina party serving as prime minister for the first two years followed by Lapid from center-left Yesh Atid.

Even a year ago, the notion that an Arab party would be invited, and agree, to join a coalition involving center-right- and right-wing parties would have been unfathomable– yet during negotiations, Mansour Abbas’ Ra’am even came close to joining a Netanyahu government. This unprecedented development follows 3 elections in which Ayman Odeh, as chair of the Joint List, worked to gain legitimacy and form political partnership with center-left Jewish parties; yet it again finds itself sidelined.

While Ra’am’s new leadership role is certainly historical, debates are ongoing regarding whether it joining a right-wing lead government is actually what Arab citizens want or if it will lead to meaningful change. This question is at the core of the Joint List and Ra’am’s ideological disagreements: Mansour Abbas was largely willing to set aside issues of national identity and civil rights to move forward on socioeconomic issues and budgets benefiting Arab society—The Joint List leadership was not.  Ultimately, Ra’am’s success hinges not only on the new coalition actually being sworn in on the 14th, but also on Abbas’ ability to achieve concrete improvements for Arab society. The coalition holds a razor-thin 61 seats, meaning any individual could veto a bill or cause the fragile government to collapse. Therefore, many of the political issues underpinning the recent escalation, including those of great importance to many Arab citizens, will be nearly impossible to address.


Did Ra’am’s Strategic Gamble Pay Off?

Throughout the election cycle, Mansour Abbas’ strategy was to be open to working with parties from left to right and minimize national identity issues in an effort to secure the best possible deals for Arab society. Even in the hours preceding the deadline for Lapid to form a coalition, Abbas was in discussion with both Netanyahu and the change-bloc to gain as much leverage as possible. Abbas explained, “it was more perfect to take this step [negotiations] with the full-blown right — because in these matters, when you do the process with the right you also get the center and the left.” In an 11th hour deal, Ra’am became the final party to join the coalition, giving it 61 seats.


Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (L), Yamina leader Naftali Bennett (C) and Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas sign a coalition agreement on June 2, 2021 (Courtesy of Ra'am)

Yair Lapid from Yesh Atid, Naftali Bennett from Yamina, and Mansour Abbas from Ra’am sign the coalition agreement. Photo credit: Ra’am


R’a’am’s coalition agreement included numerous government commitments  to improve the quality of life for Arab citizens and address particular concerns of Negev Bedouin:

  • 30 billion NIS ($9 billion) over five years toward unspecified economic development in Arab society and 20 billion NIS ($6 million) over 10 years to fix crumbling infrastructure in Arab communities. Abbas will have the authority to approve the use of these funds.
  • 2.5 million NIS ($770,000) to immediately address crime and violence in Arab society
  • The legal recognition of three currently unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev: Abda, Khashm al-Zena, and Rakhma
  • The decision to freeze parts of the Kaminitz Law targeting informal construction, which disproportionally impacts Arab society, especially in the Negev, will be continued until 2024. Discussion’s regarding repealing or amending the law will be ongoing. Bennett and Lapid also allegedly agreed to ask the attorney general to consider retroactively cancel illegal constructions.
  • Mansour Abbas will hold a ministerial portfolio within the Prime Minister’s office.

Mansour Abbas believes that Ra’ams strategy succeeded. In his first Knesset speech, new Ra’am MK Mazen Ghanim shared, “We came to be legitimate and influential players in order to achieve the interests of our Arab society.”

Core to this strategy was emphasizing practical and pressing socioeconomic concerns of Arab citizens over underlying issues regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, political identity, and civil equality. Political sociologist Ameer Fakhoury believes that the ongoing crisis of violent crime in Arab communities, and the consistent demand for government response, created an opening for Abbas’ pragmatic approach. When Arab citizens are afraid for personal safety in their own communities, they are more likely to prioritize internal issues over national politics.


Public Discourse

While much of the Jewish center-left has lauded this milestone as a new age of political partnership, opinions within Arab society are much more mixed. Those sympathetic to Abbas’ strategy argue that an Arab party being a key election player and joining a coalition is a paradigm-changing feat. Fadi Amun, a film student, shared, “It used to be said that Netanyahu is a political genius and he is, but this time an Arab from the village [Abbas] put an end to the prime minister’s Wild West treatment of Arab citizens of Israel.” 

Abbas’ Arab critics are upset that the agreement does not address the nation-state law, civil equality, Jerusalem, or the concerns of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Some critics go further, believing that Abbas is being used by the right as a political pawn and Ra’am’s inclusion in the government is designed to distract from national issues. Lawyer Amjad Shoufany, argues, “I find it hard to believe that they’re [other coalition members] giving him [Abbas] something new that’s not based on a plan that was offered or proposed earlier by others. This will be Yamina’s defense — that they’re giving him something Netanyahu was already and in any case willing to give.”

The Joint List cited similar concerns as its reason for voting against the new government. A Hadash statement explained, ““We are not [interested in] dealing with changing characters, but [in] changing policies, eradicating racism, and resisting the occupation.” The daylight between Ra’am and the Joint List reflects their different strategies and priorities: Abbas believes that any opportunity should be taken to improve the day-to-day realities of Arab citizens. Odeh and his partners believe true change is impossible without addressing political issues that they believe are core to Arab society’s challenges.

Ultimately, many Arab citizens believe it is too early to determine if Mansour Abbas’ gamble will pay off in the long run.  As members of the new coalition face death threats and  a rescheduled flag march risks triggering renewed clashes in Jerusalem and beyond, it is possible that the coalition can fall apart quickly. Moreover, it remains to be seen if the promises Abbas’ received for joining the government will come to fruition.

Jack Khoury argues that Abbas has not made history quite yet: “To enter the history books, a change is required in the rules of the game; a change that will challenge the establishment. In its decision to sign the coalition agreement and enter the government, the UAL, and to a great extent the other left-wing parties, have joined the game, but they are still very far from changing its rules.”

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