The United Arab List (RAAM): Conservative Revolution in Israeli Arab Society


By Dr. Michael Milshtein​​ | March 18, 2021

RAAM - MK Dr. Mansour Abbas
Photo: Mansour Abbas - Zaher333 | CC BY-SA 4.0


The United Arab List (RAAM) represents the southern faction of the Islamic Movement and has been widely discussed in Israeli political, public, and media discourse in recent months. It has been receiving significant attention not only in the Arab society, but also in the Jewish one, whose acquaintance with it has been fairly limited until now. This development reflects greater integration of Arab politics in Israeli ones, and the former's more profound impact on the latter, alongside Jewish society's growing familiarity with the diversity, and, at times, opposing poles, characteristic of the Israeli Arab public's politics and culture.


Interest in RAAM aroused primarily due to its chairman, MK Dr. Mansour Abbas' extraordinary efforts to promote collaboration with the Likud party - a failed attempt, in hindsight, presented as means by which to solve Israeli Arab society's fundamental problems, especially the rise in crime and violence. The party attracted further attention when it decided to leave the Joint List some weeks ago, and run independently in the upcoming elections. In Arab discourse, and recently in that of Jewish society as well, the United Arab List was also scrutinized for its vehement objection to the LGBTQ+ movement, having voted against the law prohibiting conversion therapy, and anchoring this issue as a key component of its elections campaign.


RAAM represents opposing poles: on the one hand, it has expressed an unprecedented desire to integrate into Israeli politics, while abandoning the lasting political ideological view characterizing most Arab political parties in Israel today, and criticizing it for being obsolete and futile; on the other hand, it has pursued the shaping of Arab society in Israel as traditional and religious, objecting to emerging cultural trends inspired by the Jewish public. Its diverse goals are reflected in its election slogan: Sawt Waqe`i, Muathar wa-Muhafez - "A realistic, influential and conservative voice".


An in-depth understanding of RAAM requires the acknowledgement that it is a social movement first, and only then a political party. The Islamic Movement in Israel – a local representative of the Muslim Brotherhood – was founded in 1979 by Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish. Its first attempt was traumatizing: it attempted to promote military activity (Jihad), leading to the arrest of most of its founders for about five years. Upon his release from prison, Darwish decided to lead the movement in a different direction: without violence, while accepting the regime, claiming that the Muslim minority in Israel is living under unique circumstances and must therefore adapt to them instead of fighting them.


For the first ten years after his release from prison, Darwish focused on developing a comprehensive civil array (Da`awa) that remains "the beating heart" of the movement and its main link to the wider public to this day. Under this framework, the Islamic movement representatives were elected as Arab city mayors, charities, educational and religious facilities were established, while activities focusing on Temple Mount, as well as the restoration and preservation of deserted religious sites across Israel were advanced. Furthermore, leadership institutions modeled after the common organizational structure of all Muslim Brotherhood movements (including Hamas) were established, among them a political bureau and Shura council.


During this time, tension grew within the movement between Darwish, who strove to deepen its integration into the ruling establishment, and a faction that opposed such integration claiming that all connection to the regime must be avoided. The tension peaked in 1996, when Darwish decided to run for Knesset, and the movement split into the "southern branch", loyal to Darwish's approach (its stronghold is in the Southern "Triangle" and the Negev), and the "northern branch" headed by Sheikh Raed Salah, outlawed in 2015 due to its extreme approach toward the State of Israel (its strongholds are the Northern "Triangle", especially Umm al-Fahm, as well as part of the Galilee). Since 1996, the southern branch has been continuously represented in the Knesset, at times running independently and at others in joint lists with other Arab parties.


RAAM's current position may be defined as "Conservative Revolution". It is politically and ideally innovative for it underscores that the Arab public is in no camp's pocket ("not rightwing and not leftwing"), and is willing to forge ties with the regime, including rightwing parties, thereby expanding Arab parties' leeway, and rendering them more sought-after and influential. At the same time, it criticizes the Joint List parties, claiming that their path has ended, that they cannot change, impact, or solve problems, and are solely focused on slogans.


The political approach embraced by RAAM has a religious Muslim basis - Fiqh al-Aqalliyyat - the laws governing Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries. This perception, developed by Muslim clergy in the west, was embraced by Darwish almost 30 years ago. It centers on the Muslim minorities' willingness to integrate into a non-Muslim country to promote their own collective interests (Maslaha) provided that their actions do not contradict Islamic law. According to Darwish, this approach is preferable to alienation, separatism, or resistance to existing regimes.


Darwish underscored his view by announcing: "We would not want to be perceived as those who demand that non-Muslim minorities honor the laws of Islam in Islamic countries while we ourselves do not honor the law of non-Muslim countries in which we live as minorities, provided that our religious rights are protected. We live as minorities, provided that our religious rights are protected".


Ibrahim Sarsur, the former head of the southern branch, said in this context: "We are not the Islamic Movement in Jordan or the Occupied Territories. We are living under different conditions … As a Muslim, I accept the existence of the State of Israel as a given fact … We are living as a minority incapable of fighting, and according to the principles of Islam, we are not obligated to fight Israel".


On the other hand, RAAM want "to return to their roots" culturally. By waving the banner of conservatism, they create tension vis à vis some elements in Arab society that are attempting to become more modern and western. At times, there is even religion-based friction, for instance, when MK A`ida Touma-Suleiman (Hadash, from Christian origin) was recently criticized by the Islamic faction for reportedly opposing Hijab-wearing by Muslim women and calling for the dissolution of Sharia`a courts in Israel (all false accusations).


The upcoming elections are expected to serve as an important test for the Islamic Movement. They will demonstrate its political power and cultural hold in Arab society, as well as the extent to which the new vision presented by Abbas is supported by Arab citizens in Israel. To ensure that it will indeed achieve its goals, RAAM is engaging in intense advocacy over the past few weeks, and is assisted by its array of Da`awa, as well as some admired public figures that are not on the party's list for the Knesset, such as former mayor of Sakhnin, Mazen Ghneim. According to public opinion polls, the party is hovering around the electoral threshold, and is likely to cross it.


If RAAM will be successful in the upcoming elections, it may indicate a revolution in Israeli Arab politics. For the first time ever, a political party will be active despite having made clear that it is not limited by former taboos, such as not being part of the government or coalition, as opposed to the parties comprising the Joint List.


Moreover, if elected, RAAM may be a heavy weight, capable of tipping the scales of the prime minister's identity. Such circumstances would increase the Arab public's impact, and deepen its integration into national-level politics.




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



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