Israel’s big experiment

Soon-to-be Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, left, chats with Mansour Abbas, head of the conservative Islamic Ra’am party, during a special session to vote on a new government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 13, 2021 (Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

By Noga Tarnopolsky

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Mansour Abbas, the first leader of any majority-Arab party to join an Israeli government, launched his reelection campaign earlier this month with a visit to the al-Aqsa mosque, genially posing for selfies with other Muslims and stopping in front of the iconic golden Dome of the Rock for a sunny campaign portrait.

Abbas, 48, head of Ra’am-the United Arab List is perhaps the most intriguing figure to emerge in Israeli politics in recent years. His yearlong stint in the coalition of Naftali Bennett, who served as prime minister for just a year, and Yair Lapid, his successor for at least four months, was tumultuous — and may have changed the Israeli political landscape forever.

After Ra’am refused to support a bill extending Israel’s administrative rule over the West Bank, in what turned out to be the final straw days before the formal unraveling of Bennett’s government, Nir Orbach, a member of Bennett’s party, yelled at a fellow legislator from Abbas’ party, “You don’t want to be partners! The experiment with you has failed!”

Ironically, in the end it was Orbach and his rebel colleagues from Yamina, Bennett’s party — not anyone from Ra’am — who defected from the coalition, leading to its demise.

But did Israel’s big political experiment really fail? The outcome of the upcoming elections could provide a read of Israeli voters’ pulse on this question. Thanks to Abbas and his party, many believe the door to the integration of Arabs in all realms of Israeli lives — including politics — has opened wider than ever before.

Now, Jewish Israeli voters will make their choice between parties that view Arab Israelis as legitimate partners in Israel’s governing coalition, and those who at least in campaign puffery refuse to give them a seat at the table.

“If you’re asking if the experiment was a failure, the answer is no. A precedent was set. History was made,” said Afif Abu Much, an Israeli political analyst and activist for the inclusion of Arab voices in Israel’s political sphere. “Arab-Israeli identity is very complicated to begin with, so imagine how complex it is being an Arab coalition member. Not everyone is a good fit for life in a coalition. It is the same for Arabs and for Jews. Not everyone is cut out for it.”

Israelis are as divided on the future of political cooperation between Arab and Jewish parties in the Knesset as they are on any other salient issue. Some point to the collapse of Bennett’s coalition as proof that differences between both sides are too deep to reconcile and will doom any future attempt to join forces, while others believe the barrier that separated Jews and Arabs in politics has been breached, for good.

An informal survey taken in Abu Tor, a rare mixed Jewish/Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem, where Jews and Arabs can be found together, showed a wide range of opinions regarding the status of Arabs in Israel’s political space.

Ayman Odeh, holding paper, and other members of the Joint List of Arab parties shown in the Knesset, or Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem, Jan. 15, 2020. The Joint List has never joined a governing coalition (Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Supporters of the Joint List, the other majority-Arab party, which has stuck to its longtime refusal to join any coalition, were quick to state that the endeavor never had a chance.

“The experiment simply doesn’t work. It will fail as long as the rules of the game do not point at real equality,” said Marah, a Jerusalem Arab in her twenties who has voted for the Joint List in the past. She was referring to the feeling shared by many Israeli Arabs of being treated as second-class citizens in a country that has passed a law defining Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. In a distant future, Marah added, “when there is no Jewish state, but a state for all its citizens,” majority Arab parties should form part of the government.

Passers-by interviewed for this article are identified by only their first names due to privacy concerns.

Yaakov, a haredi Orthodox man in his thirties, also said the inclusion of Abbas’ Ra’am party in the coalition was bound for failure, but he offered very different reasons.

“Absolutely, the experiment failed,” he said, “because the Arabs are very, very nationalistic and they can’t get along with Israeli nationalism. They can’t give up on that issue, so it is impossible to come to an understanding with them.”

Large portions of Israeli Jews increasingly engage with aspects of Arab culture, including music, food and even language. But a recently released survey revealed the deep ambivalence, and growing opposition, of Israeli Jews to the basic proposal that Arabs could take up an equal role in Israeli political life.

The nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute polled Israelis to assess their mood after one year of the Bennett-Lapid government, shortly before the coalition dissolved. It found that only 36% of Jews support an amendment enshrining the principle of full equality for non-Jewish Israeli citizens in the controversial 2018 Nation-State Law — down from 46% last year.

The decline came after a year of Arab participation in a governing coalition — a year without war or the sort of violence that spread over Israel in May 2021 — but also a year of relentless accusations, from the opposition led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that it was a coalition of “terror supporters.”

The poll’s author, political scientist Tamar Hermann, said there was a growing divergence between Jewish perceptions of Arab citizens in personal and professional settings, such as shared public spaces, or the prominent public role of Arab medical personnel during the pandemic, where “acceptance continues to rise,” versus “the question of political participation,” where Jewish respondents to the survey showed growing antagonism.

Some of this trend can be explained by a vast shift underway among haredi or ultra-Orthodox Jews, she said, where previous indifference towards Arabs has been steadily hardening into active hostility against their integration into positions of leadership or power.

“Likud spin is breaking through,” she said, alluding to Netanyahu’s party and his persistent references to Mansour Abbas — with whom he also attempted to negotiate a coalition government — and Ra’am as “enemies of Israel.”

In Israel’s febrile parliamentary system, where a Knesset seat and a possible coalition can hang on dozens of votes, Arab citizens’ votes in the upcoming election could dictate who will become prime minister. In Abu Tor, two Arab residents expressed their intention to vote for drastically opposed mainstream, or Zionist, parties.

Zaki, arriving at home after work, said he expected to vote for left-wing Meretz, which he believes has Arab interests at heart and is more politically savvy than the majority-Arab parties. On the other hand, Ahmad, in his fifties, said he’ll be voting for Netanyahu, “the only one who knows how to manage things around here.”

But with roughly 80% of Arab citizens voting for majority-Arab parties (either the Joint List or Ra’am) most will still face the question of whether their representatives will be welcomed into the next coalition government, whenever it is formed.

“To call this experiment a failure is a bit much,” said Gil, a clean-cut Jewish Jerusalemite in his thirties who votes for Labor. “How can you say that on the basis of something that happened for the first time and lasted only a year?”

Political commentator Abu Much sounded a similar note.

“In Israel, 36 governments have come to an end,” he said. “Thirty-five fell and it was fine, but when it comes to the 36th ‘the experiment failed’? Come on.”

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