TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Mansour Abbas broke a long-held taboo when he led his Arab party into Israel’s ruling coalition last year. This bold decision seems to be paying off.
Abbas, a once-obscure politician, is the linchpin of the faltering union, securing hefty budgets and policies favorable to his constituents and even winning an audience with the King of Jordan.
“We are equal partners all the way, being part of the coalition, for the first time in the State of Israel,” Abbas told Israel’s Ynet news site recently. “We make compromises to solve the problems of Arab society.
Abbas’ pragmatic approach has secured funding for housing, electricity and fighting crime in Israel’s traditionally neglected Arab sector. He also hasn’t been afraid to confront his partners to get what he needs.
But he is also forced to perform a delicate balancing act between the desires of his Arab constituents and those of his Jewish coalition partners. His every move is watched by his constituents, whose interest in the country’s democracy could wane if he fails to bring about long-term change.
“Having Arabs sitting around the government table is no small feat,” said Nasreen Haddad Haj-Yahya, director of the Arab Society in Israel program at the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank from Jerusalem. “The question is, will this political power translate into actions that citizens feel in their daily lives?
Abbas made history last June when his small Islamist party became the first Arab faction to join an Israeli coalition. Throughout Israel’s 73-year history, Arab parties have remained in opposition, castigating the government and unwilling to participate in policies against their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Their Jewish counterparts often viewed them as potential security threats and enemies within.
Palestinian citizens of Israel make up one-fifth of Israel’s 9.4 million people. While many are integrated into Israeli society, the community is generally poorer and less educated than Jews and has long faced discrimination and questions about its loyalties. Arab voter turnout has generally been lower than that of Jews and hit a nadir in last year’s elections.
The coalition, made up of 61 lawmakers from Israel’s 120-seat Knesset, now relies on the four members of Abbas’ party to pass laws, approve a budget and keep the government afloat.
Abbas, 47, leads the Ra’am party, a moderate conservative Islamist party linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Ra’am voters are overwhelmingly Bedouin Arabs, who are among the country’s poorest citizens.
A dentist by training, Abbas has led Ra’am in the Knesset since 2019, serving on various parliamentary committees but barely fitting into mainstream Israeli politics.
As Israel descended into a protracted political stalemate, with four elections in the space of two years, Abbas emerged as the antidote to chaos.
Ahead of the March 2021 elections, Abbas separated Ra’am from a union of Arab parties and hinted that the faction would sit in a coalition on the right terms regardless of who led it.
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held unprecedented talks with Abbas on joining forces, promising him a list of policies that would address rampant crime and housing problems in the Arab community. But Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist allies opposed cooperation with Abbas and the talks fell through.
When lawmaker Yair Lapid was then asked to form a government, he picked up where Netanyahu left off and Ra’am became a key member of the current coalition.
Comprised of eight parties that run the gamut from nationalist factions to pacifist parties that support a Palestinian state, the unwieldy coalition led by former West Bank settler leader Naftali Bennett has vowed to set aside divisive issues. Instead, he focused on topics that would not shake the stability of the coalition, including the pandemic and the economy.
The Palestinian issue, traditionally of central importance to Arab parties, has been largely ignored.
Abbas insisted he was aware of longstanding Palestinian aspirations for statehood in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. families unite Palestinian citizens of Israel and those living in the occupied lands.
Abbas said in a podcast after the coalition was formed, “Ra’am wants to focus on the pressing problems of Arab society.” His office declined interview requests.
Ra’am advanced his priorities from within the coalition. He secured an unprecedented multi-billion dollar budget for the Arab community, aimed at improving living conditions and minimizing record crime rates. At Ra’am’s request, the government decided to allow some unrecognized Bedouin villages in the southern Negev desert and to connect thousands of illegally built homes to electricity.
“Over time, Israeli governments have neglected the Negev and failed to address the fundamental issues,” said Faiz Abu Sahiban, mayor of the Bedouin town of Rahat and a supporter of Abbas. “This is the first time the State of Israel has heard of the Bedouins.”
The various opinions inevitably collided. Abbas last week threatened to suspend his party’s votes in parliament to protest the planting of trees on land claimed by Bedouins in the Negev, a crisis that led to the suspension of the forestry project. Ra’am also pushed back against efforts by elements of the nationalist coalition to extend a law that prevents Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens from obtaining residency rights.
Abbas has repeatedly been labeled a terrorist sympathizer by ultra-nationalist opposition lawmakers. A social conservative, he also opposes pro-LGBT legislation in a coalition with an openly gay minister.
It has also been criticized by Palestinian citizens of Israel. Recently, he caused an uproar in the Arab public when he recognized Israel as a Jewish state at a business conference.
Right-wing Israeli leaders have repeatedly called on Palestinians to recognize Israel’s Jewish character, and the predominantly Jewish public has applauded the remarks.
But Arab critics, including Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, accused Abbas of abandoning the Palestinian cause.
“They (Ra’am) bear the responsibility for everything this government decides, including the budgets for settlements in the West Bank,” veteran Arab lawmaker Ahmad Tibi said last month.
Yet Abbas’ entry into the coalition follows years of Arab public opinion in favor of greater Arab participation in decision-making. Its failures and achievements could help determine future Arab political engagement.
“If the Arab public sees that what Mansour Abbas has done is effective and has brought change, I have no doubt that voter turnout will increase dramatically,” said Mohammad Magadli, political analyst at Arab Nas Radio and Israeli channel 12 TV.
“That would mean that Israel would become a true democracy.”
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