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Can Islamists put an end to Israeli racism?

Abdul Wahab Badrakhan

Published: Updated:

The United Arab List (Ra'am) Political Party, which is the political arm of the Southern branch of the “Islamic Movement” in Israel has recently split from the left-wing nationalist "National Movement" that represents Arab Israelis in order to run in the elections independently. It could be argued that this defection and unforeseen victory as a small bloc with a weighted vote that can sway the upcoming Coalition government in Israel is certainly an exceptional event. However, we should be asking ourselves why is it significant?

Firstly, this can be seen as a first step towards internal “normalization” which resulted in leading members of the “United Arab List Party” commonly known in Israel by its Hebrew acronym Ra'am to win four Knesset seats, without allying with the other three parties in the “Joint Arab List”. This means that Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition could receive support, even if from outside the government if he manages to secure a victory.

Secondly, this defection decision came from an Islamist party which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, led by Sheikh and dentist Mansour Abbas. Mansour Abbas seemed to display an unprecedented level of pragmatism that led him to assume a mediating “conciliatory” position between the two prevailing blocs. It seems that it is in Mansour Abbas’s favor for Netanyahu to secure a victory and not be replaced.

A woman stands in front of "Joint List" and "Meretz" party election campaign posters ahead of the March 23 ballot in the northern Israeli-Arab city of Nazareth March 13, 2021. Picture taken March 13, 2021. (Reuters)
A woman stands in front of "Joint List" and "Meretz" party election campaign posters ahead of the March 23 ballot in the northern Israeli-Arab city of Nazareth March 13, 2021. Picture taken March 13, 2021. (Reuters)

Thirdly, the United Arab List (Ra'am or the Islamic Movement), has taken a whole new approach during this electoral campaign by avoiding any politicization and focusing instead on demands specifically centered around improving civil services. This approach has never been adopted before by Arab Israelis who are often quick to express their opposition towards the authorities to show their refusal of any discrimination against them as a minority as well as to show their solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

Fourthly, this victory has resulted in overcomplicating the already complex Israeli political arena, not only because it holds the key to swaying the parliamentary majority, but because it has presented a new opportunity for Israeli politicians and emphasized the need for them to cooperate with elected Palestinians from the Arab Israeli side. This opportunity also arose after the third elections in March 2020, when the “Arab Joint List” won 15 Knesset seats and imposed itself as a mandatory path for any government to secure victory, but the difference here is that the “Joint List” had focused on political demands and not just services.

The gradual defection within the Islamic Movement in Israel, since the Oslo Accords in 1993 all the way to 2015, was not based solely on geographical (Northern vs. Northern) considerations, but also due to the different political stances. The Northern Branch (the most notable of its members is Sheikh Raed Salah, who is currently imprisoned), participates in the local elections and boycotts the Knesset elections, and is committed to the Palestinian cause in an approach that is in alignment with Hamas in terms of fighting against the authorities which resulted in banning and outlawing the Northern Branch in November 2015. As for the Southern Branch with Mansour Abbas being the current face for it, after founder Abdullah Nimar Darwish, as well as its current Chairman, Hamed Abu Daabas, tends to adopt an approach that favors coexisting with the Israeli state without clashing with the authorities, and has supported the peace process and had good relations with the Palestinian Authority, but it is not clear whether this will continue.

Mansour Abbas uses a new pragmatic approach that is close to “Israelization”. This approach puts aside the issues of national identity and the struggle with Israel’s “Jewish nation-state” law and its consequences of legalized racism, to tackle the issues concerned with improving the living conditions of the Israeli Arab side (a fifth of the population) which has been jarringly neglected and left out from development budgets with no laws prohibiting settlement construction. In recent years, the Israeli Arab side has faced an increase in crime levels. Arab MPs have tried to gain benefits for their people and their regions, but the competition for funds within the Israeli Knesset has always been in favor of the Jews and the hard-line right or the religious extremists. Discrimination against the Arab population in Israel and treating them as second-class citizens was a traditional practice before it became legalized, which made Arab representation in the Knesset a formality that only serves to claim that Israel is a “democratic state.”

Therefore, this rapprochement approach adopted by the “Southern Islamic Movement” to break through this wall of systematic and internalized prejudice appears to be driven by the prospect of bringing about a corresponding shift in the prevailing Israeli mindset and behavior especially since racism has taken root in the Israeli society, whether by its politicians or the public. However, it can be said that they are playing a losing game. The Israelis are indifferent to the internal normalization that Mansour Abbas is offering, by welcoming the recent Arab–Israeli normalization agreements in contrast to the Palestinian Authority or even Islamists and Arab nationalists in general, or by refraining from demonstrating his position on major issues such as Jerusalem, the holy sites, and peace and justice for the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza.

Undoubtedly, the logic of placing the people's interests first is pragmatically sound, as the Israeli Arab side has been living in a state of frustration and anticipation for over seven decades, they have witnessed the Palestinian Intifadas and hoped for a lasting Palestinian-Israeli peace that might contribute to solving their economic and social crises, but alas, these efforts have all failed. Many factors played a role in shattering any hope for justice or reparations, including the ongoing discouraging tribulations of the peace process and the policies of the Israeli right-wing, along, in addition to the latest fears regarding the “Deal of the Century” and the increase in the Palestinian division, as well as the general deterioration of the Arab world. The despair felt by the 48-Palestinians, who are exposed to the worst kinds of pressures, is shared by other Palestinians and Arabs in unstable conflict-ridden countries.

Israel’s Netanyahu holds phone call with Biden. (Photo via @netanyahu/Twitter)
Israel’s Netanyahu holds phone call with Biden. (Photo via @netanyahu/Twitter)

These defections had major consequences, represented firstly by a decline in Arab representation in the Knesset from 15 to 10 members, followed by a new division between 48-Palestinians which would lead to losing further political support. And finally, it would soon be clear that this hope of establishing a "breakthrough" in the Israeli mindset may turn out to be pure delusion. Even Netanyahu will consider this split a free win, and he will not approach his relations with Mansour Abbas by following the same approach he did with Arab–Israeli normalization, nor will he grant him all his wishes. As for the other politicians, they are not concerned with the “Abbas phenomenon” nor with it being a test of their “democratic” values, as they have reached a level of audacity that allows them to publicly express their racism and reject any coalition government that includes the “Abbas bloc”, whether it is headed by Netanyahu, Yair Lapid, or others, despite the desperate need to avoid going into a fifth election.

Never before has an Arab party joined any governing coalition. Six of the thirteen right-wing and religious parties that won the last elections are completely dismissing this possibility from their agendas, and the other five from the left and the center-left wing would never accept it, no matter the circumstances. Betzalel Smotrich, the leader of the Religious Zionist Party, which brings together a group of hardline extremists from the banned parties in Israel, refuses to even sit with Mansour Abbas, and his counterparts in other parties share this view, even if they do not publicly admit it. Netanyahu's “achievements” regarding the Arab–Israeli normalization have had no impact on the Israeli electoral scene, and peace was never mentioned in any candidate's speech or campaign. It is safe to assume that the Israelis will remain deeply entrenched in their racism, especially since the “Deal of the Century” promised them “the expulsion of the Arabs”, as Itamar Ben-Gvir repeatedly demanded.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, Lebanese news outlet Annahar al-Arabi.

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