In first for Israel, Arab party on road to joining coalition government

Published June 4, 2021
Supporters of Israeli “change coalition” shout slogans and wave the national flag during a demonstration in support of the coalition to form a government, in the central Israeli city Petah Tikva, on June 3. — AFP
Supporters of Israeli “change coalition” shout slogans and wave the national flag during a demonstration in support of the coalition to form a government, in the central Israeli city Petah Tikva, on June 3. — AFP

JERUSALEM: A party representing Arab citizens of Israel has for the first time joined an Israeli coalition to form a government, but many doubt the move can end decades of political marginalisation.

Arab Israeli Mansour Abbas, the head of the conservative Islamic Raam party, on Wednesday signed onto an eleventh-hour deal hoping to oust the country’s longest-serving premier, Benjamin Netanyahu.

An image of the lawmaker of Palestinian descent at a table with centrist Yair Lapid and right-wing nationalist Naftali Bennett, all three grinning, captured a historic moment and circulated widely on social media.

Abbas, a member of the Knesset legislature since 2019, was jubilant on Israel’s army radio on Thursday morning.

“We obtained the legitimacy to influence the Israeli political system and not just to be present there in the Knesset,” he said.

“It opens a wide door for us to influence policies and decisions for the benefit of all citizens of the state and especially Arab citizens.” In 1992, when a peace process was underway with the Palestinians, Arab Israeli lawmakers backed a Labour coalition from the outside but did not take part in the negotiations.

Arab Israelis — descendants of Palestinians who remained on their land when the state of Israel was created in 1948 — make up around 20 percent of the Israeli population.

They regularly complain of discrimination and being treated as second-class citizens.

During a recent uptick in the conflict with Israel, they staged unprecedented protests in solidarity with Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank.

In the run-up to the country’s elections in March, the fourth in less than two years, Abbas surprised many when he said that in order to help his community, he would be prepared to work with the hawkish Netanyahu.

His Raam party split from the Joint List, a grouping of Arab Israeli politicians, to run separately in the polls.

But not all are happy with that decision, or with Abbas’s choice to join the emerging coalition government alone.

“We would have had influence if all the (Arab) parties had stayed together.

We could have imposed our conditions,” said Eilaf Dagher, an Arab Israeli resident of northern Israel.

“I don’t trust the Israeli government — whether right-wing or left-wing,” she said.

Two other Arab Israeli parties have already accused Abbas of selling out.

Joining the motley alliance “gives legitimacy to a policy that denies the rights of Palestinians”, the Communist Party and the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality said in a statement.

They said even the prospect of toppling Netanyahu, whom the Arab Israeli community has long of accused of being racist, did not justify joining “a right-wing government that does not represent a real change”.

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2021

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