On Sunday evening the new Israeli government led by Naftali Bennett took office, replacing Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister after 12 consecutive years in office. The government is supported by a majority of just 61 out of 120 MPs in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The support of Ra’am, one of the main parties representing Arab-Israeli citizens, was decisive for his birth: his leader is called Mansour Abbas, he is considered a conservative Islamist and many consider him the man who in fact allowed the birth of the new government.
Abbas’s decision is considered historic. It is the first time that an independent Arab-Israeli party, i.e. Arab people with Israeli citizenship, explicitly supports a government in office: previously it had happened that lists of Arab-Israelis ran for larger parties, such as Labor. . In his inaugural speech as a parliamentarian, Abbas said he intends to work “to foster a dialogue that will create a new and better relationship between all citizens of the state, Jews and Arabs.”
Arab-Israelis are people of Arab ethnicity living on Israeli territory. Many of them are descendants of the Palestinians who inhabited these territories before the birth of the Israeli state in 1948. They are mostly Muslims and many, although not all, recognize themselves as Palestinians. In all, they represent about 20 percent of the Israeli population. Nominally they have the same rights and duties as other Israelis, except for compulsory military service.
While several observers view Abbas as a pragmatic leader whose choice will bring real benefits to Arab-Israelis, others view him as a traitor to the Palestinian cause, as he has agreed to ally with a number of far-right politicians – including Bennett himself – who they deny the need to create an independent Palestinian state.
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Abbas is 47 years old and had studied as a dentist before entering politics. He considers himself a follower of Abdullah Nimar Darwish, a former Palestinian fighter who converted to pacifism after years in prison in Israel. But Abbas also supports the need to temper his political views with his own faith, in his case the Islamic one: for years he has openly hostile positions towards the gay community, as taught by the most radical doctrine of Islam, and in 2020 he refused to to vote for a law to prohibit discredited “conversion therapy” (that is, one that considers homosexuality to be a mental illness).
Until a few months ago, Ra’am was part of an electoral cartel that brought together all the parties representing the Arab-Israelis, the Common List. Both due to some internal differences and the fact that by statute he would not have been able to reapply, given that he had already completed two terms, in January Ra’am left the coalition and decided to stand alone in the elections on 23 March. A little surprisingly, it had passed the barrier and obtained 4 seats, making it the smallest party elected in the new Knesset.
The mere fact of having entered Parliament however gave Ra’am a very high specific weight. For a couple of years now Abbas had said he was willing to ally with anyone, in order to include some specific points in the government program, while the parties that opposed Netanyahu just needed 4 seats to reach the threshold of the majority. The negotiations for Ra’am’s entry into the new majority were very swift.
In a recent interview given to Time, Abbas explained that “serving Arab citizens and proposing solutions to their problems” is his “number one, two and three” priority: “we have enormous problems of crime, violence, poverty, homelessness and recognition for community in the Negev desert. And we want to solve them ».
In short, Abbas relied on issues deeply felt by the community of Arabs who possess Israeli citizenship and live above all in the suburbs of large cities or in communities still today with an Arab majority, and against which, according to many experts, there is systemic discrimination. If an Israeli citizen lives in an Arab-dominated area, there is a good chance that schools and hospitals will function worse, that garbage is collected less frequently, that the streets are bad, and so on for a variety of factors. affecting the quality of life.
In exchange for his support for the government, Abbas has obtained the promise of some measures that should partially alleviate these problems. The news site Globes points out, for example, that Abbas has obtained that the next five-year fund for the development of Arab communities is almost three times the last in force, approved by the Netanyahu government: we are talking about 30 billion shekels – about 7.6 billion euros – against 11 in the previous plan.
Al Jazeera he also writes that according to Ra’am the new government will stop demolishing Palestinian houses built without permission on Israeli territory and will officially recognize some Bedouin villages in the Negev desert. Moreover, yesterday Abbas was appointed Undersecretary for Relations with the Arab Community, which should allow him to have some influence in the way the new government will manage relations with Arab-Israelis.
However, not everyone is convinced of this: first of all because the new government is so heterogeneous and fragile that it is not clear how long it can remain in office and what it can accomplish. Secondly, because in several key government posts, Bennett – who in the past boasted of killing “many Arabs” during his years in the military – appointed well-known far-right politicians such as Ayelet Shaked and Gideon Sa’ar, who positions often bordering on racism towards Arabs in general, therefore also those who live inside Israel.
Another more subtle criticism of Abbas is that of having effectively legitimized a government that will do nothing to resolve the conflict that has been going on for decades with the Palestinian groups that control the West Bank and Gaza, a government that has century occupies territories in the West Bank, ie the so-called colonies, which according to the majority of the international community belong to the Palestinians.
“As Palestinians, our role is not to tip the balance but to oppose this system and protect our community,” he explained. Al Jazeera Diana Buttu, lawyer and Palestinian rights activist: “The idea that somehow Abbas will have enough power to pass measures that will balance racist laws affecting Palestinians is a joke,” he added.
Abbas has already made it clear that the wider Palestinian cause is not at the top of his priorities: “but if I have the opportunity to work on the peace process, I will,” he explained to Time.