Arab party emerges as kingmaker in Israel’s parliamentary election

  • No bloc can form next government without support of Ra’am party
  • Ra’am will demand commitments to revoke the 2018 Nation-State law as well as a 2017 law targeting illegal Arab construction, among other priorities

By Abdul Bari Masoud

New Delhi: For the first time in Israel an Arab party Ra’am has emerged as a kingmaker after the Zionist entity’s fourth election in two years once again failed to deliver a clear mandate to any bloc.

Ra’am on Wednesday officially entered the Knesset after its first independent run since the early 2000s. With over 90 percent of the vote counted, the Islamists took five seats, leaving neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloc nor his opposition likely to form a majority coalition without them.

Ra’am could potentially put either side over the 61 mark in 120-member Knesset (Parliament), crowning the next premier, but right-wing politicians, both in the pro-Netanyahu bloc and the anti-Netanyahu bloc, have ruled out basing a coalition on the party’s support, due to what they say is an anti-Zionist stance.

An Arab party never sat in government in Israel, and such parties do not share Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing ideology.

While both the pro-Netanyahu bloc and the anti-Netanyahu bloc are in dilemma of taking support of Ra’am in forming the next government.

Raam split from the Joint List earlier this year in part because Raam’s leader Mansour Abbas said he was open to working with Netanyahu to address the needs of Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up about 20% of the population.

It would be “impossible” for Mansour Abbas’s list to partner in a government with neo-Kahanist Ben Gvir, prospective Ra’am MK Mazen Ghanaim told The Times of Israel, while seemingly leaving open the possibility of propping up a right-wing minority coalition from outside the government.

“It would be very hard to sit with someone like Ben Gvir who feels such enmity for Arab society. In that case, we could demand our people’s rights outside the government because when Netanyahu sits with someone like Ben Gvir, it’s very hard to be a member [of that government],” Ghanaim said.

Asked whether  “very hard” meant “impossible,” Ghanaim said: “I would say that it’s impossible.”

Ben Gvir, a Jewish supremacist who is set to enter the Knesset for the first time with the Religious Zionism party, told Channel 12 on Wednesday night that he is dead set against being in the same coalition as Abbas.

“He’s a man who has written that he supports Hamas,” he said, adding that he would ask Netanyahu if he can really rely on Abbas regarding approving IDF operations in Gaza.

Abbas’s movement is the political wing of Israel’s Southern Islamic Movement; like Hamas, it is modeled off the Muslim Brotherhood. Abbas has in the past praised aspects of Hamas’s 2017 charter, although he also criticized the document for not ending the targeting of Israeli civilians.

Netanyahu called Ra’am leader Abbas an anti-Zionist last week, and said allying with Ra’am in any way was “out of the question,” though reports on Wednesday indicated he was considering it.

According to The Times of Israel, Abbas continued to be evasive over potential alliances, telling Channel 12: “Ra’am’s approach is to not rule out anyone who doesn’t rule us out. If a ruling party makes contact, Ra’am will hold the process appropriately and respectfully, our partners would be a ruling party and a candidate for prime minister, not their satellite candidate.”

He said he hasn’t yet been contacted by Netanyahu.

Arab parties have only been part of a coalition once, in the 1990s, to help pass the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians. But the current deadlock could force collaborations that were unthinkable until not long ago.

While Israel’s Arab parties have run together in a four-party bloc known as the Joint List in most elections since 2015, the alliance broke apart in early February.

The conservative Ra’am party left the bloc after its leadership took positions the other parties saw as crossing red lines — including contemplating an alliance with Netanyahu and his Likud party.

But while Abbas has sought detente with Netanyahu, his party has deep concerns about some of his allies — especially with those, such as Ben-Gvir, from the far-right Religious Zionism party.

In an interview with Channel 12, Chief Ra’am coalition negotiator Shua Mansour Masarwa hinted the party would be uncomfortable in a coalition that includes the Religious Zionism party.

“We won’t sit with racists who threaten us, who threaten Al-Aqsa,” Masarwa said. “There are other options for a government.”

Masarwa said the party will do what it needs to advance its agenda, noting that the center-left parties’ positions are more likely to line up with the Islamist party’s goals.

“According to all indications, Netanyahu does not have a coalition. As we see it, the center-left is closer to the voters of Ra’am and the Joint List,” Masarwa said.

Abbas, however, was leaving his options open, pledging to back the candidate who offers him greater benefits for the Arab Israeli community and maintaining that he was not “in the pocket” of either parliamentary bloc.

Other Ra’am officials were less emphatic that Ben Gvir and his party would be excluded from a future government.

Ra’am party secretary Walid al-Hawashleh said that no final decisions have been made about where the party’s red lines in coalition negotiations will be.

“Every party has fundamental principles. But this matter requires some examination, and we will take up the matter within our internal institutions,” said al-Hawashleh.

Asked specifically about Religious Zionism’s Bezalel Smotrich and Ben Gvir, al-Hawashleh appeared more willing to consider the possibility than Ghanaim. But he emphasized that the party had yet to make a formal decision on the subject.

“We are studying all the possibilities in front of us, and we have yet to make a decision,” Hawashleh said.

Most of the 13 political parties set to enter the Knesset fall either in Netanyahu’s camp or in the anti-Netanyahu camp, which is led by Yesh Atid party chief Yair Lapid.

“I’m telling you, both [camps] are bad. But at the end of the day, we have demands. We’ll put our demands on the table and go back to our internal institutions, to the voters who supported us, and ask people for their opinion,” Ghanaim said.

Ghanaim said that Ra’am will demand commitments to revoke the 2018 Nation-State law as well as a 2017 law targeting illegal Arab construction, among other priorities.

The final outcome will among other things determine the course of Israel’s relations with the Palestinians.

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