Both right-wing and left-wing politicians are currently courting the Arab party, which despite cautious forecasts won four Knesset seats in last month’s election.
The natural instinct would be to lump Mansour Abbas’ party, which broke away from the Joint Arab List, into the left-wing political spectrum. Jewish and Arab societies have gotten accustomed to the notion that Arab parties simply do not fit into any governing coalition. From a Jewish point of view, the Arab parties are fundamentally anti-Israel and cannot be relied upon. They give the impression that they are committed first and foremost to the Palestinian nationalist struggle. For the Arab parties, on the other hand, the Israeli government is too Zionist, which has always been a political obstacle to joining a coalition. But now Mansour Abbas is shattering this political myth. Not only is he ready to join a coalition, but he is even signaling a willingness to join a right-wing coalition under ruling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
If we are being honest, this Islamic party, Ra’am, actually fits more naturally into a right-wing coalition. It has more in common with religious and Orthodox Jewish parties than with the left-wing liberal factions. Ra’am and the religious parties believe in a Higher Power. They each promote conservative family values, which are often defined differently in the secular community. They keep religious laws and have a fundamental problem with the growing LGBT scene in the country, which shows in their respective Knesset voting records. In all respects, Ra’am sees the world and life in Israel much differently from its fellow opposition parties on the Left, which promotes liberalism, freedom for all, and sees God (if at all) as a minor matter.
The only thing that pushes Arab parties into the opposition is the political reality in the country. All “losers” fall into the opposition, whether they refuse to join the coalition on principle, or if they disagree with the policies of the ruling faction. Whenever the Left has held power, it was the Arabs and the right-wing parties in the opposition. It’s a status quo that needs to end.
Netanyahu understands this point and is trying behind the scenes to convince important rabbis to in turn convince the Orthodox and far-right parties to form a coalition with the Islamic party. Or at least cooperate with them outside the coalition. Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben Gvir and Avi Maoz are all religious Knesset members hailing from the national settler movement, and have publicly warned Netanyahu not even to dream of including the Arab party in his government. From their point of view, Mansour Abbas and his party colleagues represent a dangerous ideology that Israel wants to eliminate as a Jewish and democratic state. They see a close connection between the Israeli Islamists and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
The Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot wrote that Ra’am is the Shas of Arab society, referring to the Orthodox Jewish party that wields much political power. Not only that, the leading rabbinical authority in Israel, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, told his followers that he preferred the Islamists and Mansour Abbas to the Jewish left in next coalition. “These Arabs are more godly and conservative than the left-wing Jews. We have more in common with these Arabs than with the left.” For Netanyahu and most of the Likud members, the four Arab party members are not so bad. On the contrary, behind the scenes moderate Likud members, politicians and rabbis also compare the conservative Ra’am with the Orthodox Shas.
Others equate Ra’am with extremists like Smotrich, Ben Gvir and Maoz. And each side accuses the other of being terrorists. “Ahmed (Tibi) you are a terrorist,” said Ben Gvir in an exchange with Joint Arab List MK Ahmed Tibi. “I don’t speak to terrorists,” Ahmed fired back. In the same breath Ben Gvir also called Mansour Abbas a terrorist. Previously, it was the left-wing MK Yair Golan who called Ben Gvir a terrorist. But things are even worse in the private WhatsApp groups, where insults fly with great frequency.
But if you leave religion aside, Judaism and Islam, then the three Jewish musketeers and four Arab aces agree on a lot, as mentioned above. The main point on which they differ is that of biblical inheritance. Who was promised the Land and who is the rightful ruler in Israel, Jews or Palestinians? Abbas & Co. now want to put this point aside in order to join a Netanyahu government and for the first time to take care of the real problems of their Arab constituency in the country. But his Jewish opponents aren’t buying it. Likud, Netanyahu and others see Abbas as a turning point in the Arab way of thinking. As a reminder, Mansour Abbas’ Holocaust Remembrance Day speech last year was encouraging and aroused immense respect and praise in Israel.
With the Left, the Arab parties have the opposite problem. They disagree with their social values, such as the colorful gay parades, a lack of religious family values, a lack of respect for God or Allah, liberalism, everything is permitted and so on. Ra’am understands that they have more in common with a right-wing government than with the left-wing bloc. In addition, Mansour Abbas would prefer to cooperate with Netanyahu and Likud for another reason. He wants to reap the political rewards and propel himself as leader of the Arab community in Israel. He can only do this with the Likud and the Right. He knows his former Arab buddies in the Joint List (6 seats) will never join a Netanyahu coalition.
Assuming Netanyahu manages the nearly impossible and can convince his right-wing allies that political survival is only possible with the Islamic party (which I cannot imagine happening), then Israel will have a Jewish-Arab right-wing government for the first time. Anything is possible in this country, and even more so under Netanyahu.