The United Arab List (Ra’am) political party and its chairperson, Knesset Member Mansour Abbas, have come under fire recently from Hamas Gaza head Yahya Sinwar and other Palestinian leaders for supporting Israel’s governing coalition, particularly in light of the violence at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque over the past month. This is not the first time that Ra’am and MK Abbas have faced sharp criticism for backing the government, but the party has taken the position, in line with the pragmatic approach of the southern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement out of which it emerged, that by participating in the coalition it can do more to improve the status of the Arab population in Israel, influence policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and address problems like declining quality of life, rising crime, and discriminatory legislation. While the party suspended its membership in the coalition during Ramadan as a result of the violence against Muslim worshippers at al-Aqsa, Ra’am has decided not to withdraw and topple the government despite the tremendous pressure on it from within and without. The party sees that its presence in the coalition restrains Israeli policies toward al-Aqsa and may still lead to tangible improvements for the Arab population.
Changes in Israeli politics in recent years, including the long-running deadlock that resulted in four consecutive elections in 2019-21, have given smaller and minority parties like Ra’am a greater ability to influence the political agenda, prompting the Islamic Movement to adopt a new strategy. After years in opposition with limited influence, the party decided to join the government and now plays the role of kingmaker in a fragile coalition, giving it an opportunity to advance its objectives. In the longer term, MK Abbas is striving to bring about fundamental change that will alter the rules of the game between the Arab and Jewish populations. He is aware that this will require a major shift in attitudes and may take a long time to carry out. More immediately, the party is working to address some of the pressing problems facing Arab society — including violence, poverty, unemployment, lack of housing, unrecognized settlements, and electricity shortages — and deliver results for its electoral base. So far, its achievements have been limited and criticism from its opponents within Israel’s Arab population continues to grow. Whether Ra’am will be able to maintain this strategy going forward remains to be seen and much may depend on how willing its coalition partners are to help it achieve its goals.
Principles and pragmatism
The southern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement has long emphasized the need for a pragmatic approach that will improve the status of Palestinian residents while cultivating their national and religious identities and achieving a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This line was formulated by the founders of the southern branch, Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish and his colleagues, who in the late 1970s abandoned the religious-oppositional approach to the State of Israel and adopted a moderate religious approach known as Wasatiyyah (“middle” in Arabic). Focused on elevating a golden mean in the sense of balance and avoidance of extremes, this approach attempts to deal with the tension between promoting civic and national issues in a pragmatic, realistic, and nonviolent manner. Since forming Ra’am and running for the Knesset in 1996, the southern branch has integrated into state institutions and worked to promote the Muslim Palestinian population in Israel — a decision that resulted in Israel’s Islamic Movement splitting in two, with the northern branch rejecting it.
The basic principles formulated by the movement’s founders stemmed from a deeply religious worldview. First, the Muslim community in Israel has a responsibility to maintain its traditional religious identity, while also exercising discretion, responsibility, and independence. Sheikh Darwish, though he was part of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, was careful to make decisions independently. As a result, the southern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement adopts an independent religious line and does not rely as firmly on the Muslim Brotherhood’s perspectives and rulings — unlike Hamas or the northern branch.
Secondly, for the southern branch the sanctity of life prevails over the sanctity of land. Therefore, it abandoned violent resistance and focused on improving the living conditions of Arab residents. Its promotes charitable activities for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank; has established religious, political, social, cultural, and artistic associations; and has supported peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians — even when Israeli governments negotiated to enshrine Israel’s Jewish character. The movement’s leaders hope that by participating in the governing coalition they will be able influence its policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that reduces harm and violence.
Thirdly, the southern branch has a commitment to promote the wellbeing of the country’s various communities, while preserving religious and traditional values, despite the ongoing national-religious conflict. It thus supported Ra’am’s founding and participation in the Knesset to advance the Arab population toward full and equal citizenship. The role of the current generation of leaders is to tailor these principles to today’s context and translate them into strategies that will advance Israel’s Muslim Palestinian community through participation in the governing coalition. While MK Abbas’s statements at the end of 2021 about the need to recognize the reality of the State of Israel’s Jewish character caused a powerful media and political storm, this reality does not prevent him from working to improve the status of the Arab population. Ra’am’s leadership is well aware of the problems burning within Arab society and their destructive consequences, and it is focused on preventing them from getting any worse. In contrast with MK Abbas, who deems Israel’s Jewish character a constant until a Jewish majority decides otherwise, many in the movement’s leadership feel differently and overall the southern branch continues to oppose the Jewish character of the state in principle, but perceives it as an issue that must be addressed in tandem with advancing the needs of the Arab population.
Adopting a new approach
In recent years, the movement’s leadership has understood that collaborating with other players in the Joint List, who ideologically reject cooperation with right-leaning parties, makes it harder to implement these principles and sometimes even harms them. Therefore, the movement decided to run on a separate list in run-up to the March 2021 election to more effectively address the problems facing the Arab population in Israel. The sense that there was a dire need to act was compounded by the deteriorating situation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip amid continued occupation, political stalemate, and the limited ability of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to effectively govern or respond to the consequences of the pandemic and economic crisis.
The movement’s leadership also recognized that advancing the Arab population’s interests cannot depend on Israel’s center-left returning to power, as there is little likelihood of that happening for the foreseeable future. This impression was strengthened after the 2019 elections when the Joint List, when Ra’am was still part of it, made the nearly unprecedented decision to back a candidate for the premiership, offering its support from outside the coalition. Yet Benny Gantz, the chairman of the centrist Blue and White Party, rebuffed it, given opposition from within his party, and decided to join Benjamin Netanyahu. For Ra’am’s leadership this made it clear that it had to challenge the political taboo against establishing a coalition with Arab party participation, and that only right-wing parties, traditionally the main opponents to their participation in coalitions, can break that taboo. Ra’am has also come to understand that it shares certain common interests with the Israeli right-wing bloc, which includes ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) parties — especially the preservation of traditional religious identity and concern for underprivileged populations.
Following the March 2020 election, the divide between political blocs put Ra’am in a position of power, enabling it to apply pressure on Netanyahu’s government during coalition negotiations to deal with the burning issues facing Arab society. Ra’am focused on rising violence and the status of unrecognized villages, arriving at certain understandings with Netanyahu, who conditioned their implementation on Ra’am’s support for a government under his leadership. Ra’am’s contacts with Likud and Yamina led to supportive statements by right-wing leaders, greatly expanding the public legitimacy of cooperating with Arab parties, particularly among right-wing voters. Many will benefit from this — not only Ra’am, but all Jewish parties that choose to form a coalition with the support of an Arab party.
A year after backing the formation of the so-called “Change Government,” the leadership of the Islamic Movement’s southern branch is determined to press ahead, despite internal disagreements and criticism from opponents within Arab society and other Palestinian leaders — especially the Palestinian Authority and part of the Hamas leadership. The party perceives this as a price worth paying provided that it advances its objectives and helps bring about broader changes.
What comes next?
The first test for Ra’am new approach is imminent and relates to the government’s ability to implement the NIS 50 billion ($14.85 billion) plan to develop Arab communities, recognize unrecognized settlements in the Negev, and reduce crime. The passing of the electricity bill, which would allow tens of thousands of Arab homes built without permits to connect to electricity and water, has been encouraging. Yet overall, criticism of Ra’am among Israel’s Arab population is mounting rapidly and the party has failed to demonstrate sufficient short-term achievements to counter it. If its Jewish partners want it to succeed, they would do well to help it achieve its goals.
Looking ahead, Ra’am’s commitment to the integrative strategy is high, not least because it will take years to implement the large budgets it secured, but the party may yet conclude that the approach has failed and change course, especially over government policies toward the Negev or religious crises. Ra’am’s Bedouin electoral base lives in the Negev, making legalization of unrecognized villages and an end to home demolitions and government tree-planting efforts politically decisive. Tellingly, the recent law blocking Palestinian family reunification did not significantly weaken Ra’am’s standing given the sense that it anchored an existing reality rather than worsening it. The southern movement’s deep religious commitments could also lead it to withdraw from the coalition if there is a sense that al-Aqsa’s sanctity is violated — by large-scale Jewish worship, entry limitations on Muslims, or major harm to the wellbeing of Palestinian Jerusalemites living nearby — or that there are curbs on the religious practice of Muslims in Israel.
Ra’am suspended its membership in the coalition during Ramadan over the harm to Muslim worshippers at al-Aqsa, as police limited their freedom of movement, detained them, and used tear gas against them. Ra’am is part of the Palestinian people and the Muslim community (ummah) and as such is deeply committed to their interests. Ra’am ultimately decided not to topple the government and has instead used its position to affect Israeli policies toward al-Aqsa. MK Abbas has had close conversations with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and Jordan’s King Abdullah that have sensitized all parties to each other’s needs, yielding greater respect for Muslim interests. As Ra’am sees it, the harm to Muslim worshippers would have been greater had it been outside the coalition. It also prioritizes securing major civic achievements before the next elections.
The Islamic Movement’s theological pragmatism motivates Abbas and Ra’am to work toward improving the Arab population’s status while dealing with the complexity of the Jewish character of the state and discriminatory legislation and governmental policies, which the Islamic Movement opposes. This approach is challenging and offers both risks and opportunities, requiring Ra’am to adopt a careful and determined strategy. Despite the difficult events of the last month at al-Aqsa and the sharp criticism by Hamas’s Sinwar and other figures, Ra’am’s leaders remain committed to making their own decisions. They continue to assess that they can meaningfully influence Israeli politics to advance their objectives and therefore are likely to continue supporting the coalition.
Naif Abu Sharkia is a Senior Advisor at the Herbert Kelman Institute for Conflict Transformation and a strategic consultant. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images