​Arab Politics in Israel Is "Calculating a New Route"


By Dr. Michael Milshtein​​ | December 17, 2020

Arab Politics in Israel
Photo: Zaher333 | CC BY-SA 4.0


The Arab political system in Israel has been experiencing a significant uproar in recent weeks that is crossing over considerably (and rather unusually) to the Israeli Jewish public. At the heart of this storm is the strengthening of ties between Likud and the United Arab List – the Arab party representing the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in the Knesset, headed by MK Mansour Abbas. Abbas claims that, thanks to these relations, he has successfully extended Plan 922 – an economic development plan for the Arab sector – by another year, and deepened the government's commitment to address crime and violence – a top priority for the Arab public in Israel.


The steps taken by the United Arab List, known by its Hebrew acronym RA`AM, are being accompanied by a considerably revolutionary declaration whereby it is pursuing an immediate practical solution for the problems faced by the Arab public, and, to this end, is willing to break old norms, including collaborating with the right-wing bloc, that is usually disinclined to work with the Joint List, and often treats the Arab public with disdain.


Alongside his actions, Abbas also claims that he is neither right-wing nor left-wing, and is in no political camp's pocket. He says he is willing to abandon the "slogan and speech culture" typical of Arab politics in Israel in favor of changing the "here and now" the way the Arab public wants. According to Abbas, his approach breaks traditional identity politics, rendering him a relevant, sought-after, and, most importantly, influential player.


Abbas is being vehemently attacked by the other Joint List members (RA`AM is one of the four parties comprising the Joint List), who claim that he is splitting the party up, and, in effect serving the cynical political purposes of Prime Minister Netanyahu. At the same time, he is gaining the support of many among the Arab public who view his actions as an original and promising solution for the tough, fundamental issues from which Arab citizens suffer. In this context, it is worth noting a survey published just days ago by Statnet research institute, led by Yusuf Makladeh, which reveals that 64% of the Arab public agrees with the approach promoted by Abbas.


The United Arab List's recent actions are far from mere "political manipulations" based on narrow, short-term interests. They reflect a poignant and profound discussion conducted in recent years in Arab society, which centers on the realization that the Joint List is struggling to deliver on the hopes that it would deepen its voters' influence and integration, and is, in effect, facing a dead end. It has come to this primarily due to the political Arab leaders' basic view that they can have their cake and eat it too: be recognized and accepted by the Jewish public, and increase the impact of the Arab population on the one hand; while placing the Palestinian issue at the heart of their activity, and advocating a profound change in Israel's character as a state on the other. As the last two years have shown, this mission is virtually impossible.


Although the electoral power of the Arab public has grown unprecedentedly stronger over the last two years (15 mandates in the last elections), this achievement has not garnered greater clout in the decision-making process, and certainly has not contributed to solving the Arab public's fundamental problems. The Arab public's frustration after having made the effort to increase the Joint List's electoral power is manifest in recent polls, predicting that the largest Arab party in Israel will lose 3 to 4 mandates in the upcoming elections.


In this grievous situation, the Islamic Party has embraced the most pragmatic approach in Israeli Arab politics these days. Ostensibly, this comes as somewhat of a surprise, since it is a conservative, traditional organization. Its unique flexibility is rooted in the United Arab List's idealism whereby it represents the Muslim Brotherhood. Since its inception a century ago, this movement has been adaptive and flexible in all areas in which it has been active, ultimately enabling its long-term survival.


The founder and spiritual leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Sheikh Abdullah Nimar Darwish, had instilled it with this unique, pragmatic spirit. Darwish had paved the movement's way based on the rich ongoing discourse on Muslim law in recent decades in the Muslim world with respect to how Muslim minorities should conduct themselves in non-Muslim countries, particularly in the West. According to Darwish, the Islamic Movement must prioritize the Muslim public's best interest (maslaha), and to this end, connecting to the government, as well as integrating into its frameworks, is permitted, and even recommended. Against this backdrop, the movement had taken part in the 1996 Knesset elections, and subsequently split into the southern branch, which recognizes the State of Israel, and the northern branch, headed by Sheikh Raed Salah, which opposes any contact with Israel, and seeks to differentiate the Arab public from it.


The United Arab List's profile is extremely elusive. Politically, it identifies with the goals with which all Arab parties side, both in the context of improving Arab citizens' status, and the Palestinian issue. However, socially and culturally there is a deep gap between it and other Joint List members, as it is closer on some issues to views commonly held by Jewish religious parties. A striking example is the discourse on the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, to which the Islamic Movement strongly objects. This approach is causing an uproar in Arab society, as well as tension between the Islamic Party and other powerful entities in the Arab sector, particularly Hadash (headed by the Israeli Communist Party), which seeks to promote liberal attitudes on the social level.


As Israel heads for another election campaign, the Arab political boat is being rocked from two main directions: on the one hand, the United Arab List, representing a new approach that may lead the Joint List to split up into separate parties once again; on the other hand, initiatives are being developed for the establishment of new Jewish-Arab parties that would pose a challenge to the Joint List. These new entities seek to offer innovative practical solutions for the Arab public's distresses too, while leaving the traditional "blocking bloc comfort zone" behind, but without genuinely crossing past boundaries toward integration into governments and coalitions.


The Jewish public is required to understand the dramatic change in Israeli Arab society. It is also recommended that the former familiarize itself well with the various political and idealistic approaches within the latter. These transformations, much like the normalization with the Arab states, must not be interpreted through the narrow prism of either siding with Netanyahu or opposing him, for they are likely to continue after he will no longer be in power.


Moreover, the Jewish public should allow the Arab citizens to make their mark on Israeli politics, particularly by way of integrating them into the larger Jewish parties (a goal that most political parties have failed to achieve in recent years), and opening the gates of both governments and coalitions to powerful Arab factors expressing such interest. A step of this kind could mark the beginning of a new era in the complex relations between the State of Israel and its Arab citizens.




Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.



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