The first Arab party in a ruling Israeli coalition: An in-depth analysis of the United Arab List (RA'AM)
By Dr. Michael Milshtein | June, 2021
One cannot overstate the importance of The United Arab List's (RA`AM) integration into the new governing coalition in Israel. It is a historical turning point both in terms of the status of Israeli Arab public and of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. The United Arab List has shattered the longstanding taboo in Arab politics whereby "sitting on the fence" is preferred to integrating into the "Zionist" governance space, which, to date, has excluded Arabs from the decision-making table as well as from national resource allocation. Abbas' decision may draw the line between old Arab politics that struggled to change to new, flexible and practical politics.
Nevertheless, the Jewish public that, over the past two years has learned to distinguish between the parties forming Arab politics that, until then, had been perceived as a single monolithic entity, finds The United Arab List hard to swallow. For the most part, RA`AM represents a social and geographic periphery in the Arab public, which the Jewish public is less aware of compared to the other Arab parties and the audiences they represent.
Moreover, RA`AM is hard to decipher, since the Arab party that has integrated itself most deeply into the Israeli game of politics is actually a conservative-religious organization and branch of the Muslim Brotherhood movement that is closer, culturally speaking, to the Israeli ultraorthodox and religious parties than to the left-wing ones that would ostensibly seem to form the Arab public's "natural camp".
In the Arab public, The United Arab List most prominently represents its growing preference to address difficult civil issues, primarily crime and violence, as opposed to engaging broadly in ideological and political matters, including the Palestinian issue. Abbas therefore established the slogan "neither right nor left", indicating that RA`AM was no obvious partner of any Israeli political camp, and is solely guided by the Arab public's interests, for which it is willing to collaborate with almost any Israeli political party.
Another important point one must understand in the context of The United Arab List is that, unlike the Jewish and Arab politics familiar to us all, this party represents and serves a wide movement. The United Arab List is a representative of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel – an organization with broad infrastructure consisting of charities, mosques, a municipal system, education facilities, lobbying groups, youth, student, and women's institutions. The United Arab List was formed to serve the needs of the movement and is subject to its resolutions. While Abbas is indeed a bold leader and trailblazer, he is not the highest authority in The United Arab List. While he does indeed impact the direction taken by his political party, he is constantly required to obtain the approval and guidance of Muslim law authority figures.
The decision-making process in the United Arab List is far more complex than in other political parties. RA`AM chairman, Mansour Abbas, is deputy chairman of the Islamic Movement, headed by Sheikh Hammad Abu Da`abas, alongside another deputy - Sheikh Safwat Freij - who is responsible for the management of the movement, and the head of the political bureau (Ibrahim Hijazi), which is the movement's central executive body.
The road taken by the entire Islamic Movement – including The United Arab List – is determined by the Shura Council (Majlas al-Shura), a fundamental component in movements associated with the Muslim Brotherhood stream. This body makes decisions on basic political and social issues, providing a basis in Muslim law (Shari`a) for all steps taken. District leaderships in the Negev, center and north of Israel operate under the national one, each with its own local Shura Council. All position-holders in the leadership institutes are elected by a general committee consisting of several hundred activists. To date, the committee has convened 23 times.
The Shura Council is responsible, inter alia, for settling contradictions on the Islamic Movement's path. For some years now, the southern branch seems to have adopted an almost fixed approach: flexibility when addressing contradictions that are rooted in politics, alongside stringency in matters that are social or cultural. It was the Shura Council that decided the party should enter the game of politics in 1996, and integrate into the coalition in 2021, but it has also made it very clear that any legislation pertaining to the LGBTQ or affecting sites sacred to Islam would be perceived as "crossing a red line".
The Shura Council's decision-making process is shrouded in considerable secrecy, typical of movements affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood that are suspicious of "foreign" regimes – Israeli, western, as well as non-religious Arab ones. The council's composition and internal role division are rarely made public, unlike the parties' actions in their individual spaces, which are perceived as the movement's "storefront". Resolutions are made unanimously in accordance with an ancient Islamic principle known as Ijma`a - consensus - whereby council members strive for a decision that will represent all views raised in the various deliberations. Once such a resolution is passed, it is binding for all.
In this context, The United Arab List follows the jurisprudence of Muslim minorities (Fiqh al-Aqalliyat), developed in Muslim communities in the West. These Muslim laws enable and even encourage integration provided that it contributes to the Muslim public's interests while ensuring that non-Muslim ideas or cultures will not penetrate the souls and minds of Muslims. The United Arab List itself embodies a collection of internal tensions and conflicting notions that have endured for many years: it abides by its religious identity alongside – and, at times, more than – its national Palestinian identity, shows tremendous respect for Judaism as its "fellow religion" while objecting – as other Arab parties do – to the adoption of an Israeli identity.
The southern branch of the Islamic Movement in general, and The United Arab List in particular, has several prominent characteristics:
- It is headed by representatives of a relatively young generation, most of whom were born in the 1970s (such as MK Mansour Abbas and Sa`id al-Kharumi, or Ibrahim Hijazi), whereas the role of the founding generation leaders is narrower, and they are primarily represented in the Shura Council (most members of which were born in the late 1950s and early 1960s, such as Abu Da`abes or Ibrahim Sarsour, the former chairman of the southern branch).
- As in many other Islamic movements in the Middle East (and beyond), most of the leaders in the Islamic Movement in Israel are not clergymen but liberal professionals (Abbas is a dentist; Hijazi is a psychologist; al-Kharumi has a degree in physics; MK Walid Taha is a teacher and holds a degree in political science). Many of them had similar career paths, teaching in their communities, integrating into the municipal level, and then moving on to national politics. It is primarily members of the older generation in the movement who have a religious education or engage in religious areas of responsibility.
- The leaderships reflect a merge between all Islamic Movement geographical hubs, namely the Bedouin society in the Negev, comprising nearly half of all RA`AM votes in the last elections, and represented by chairman of the southern branch, Abu Da`abes, and MK al-Kharumi; the southern triangle, especially Kafr Qasem, "the capital and birthplace of the Islamic Movement" (home of Sheikh Freij and Ghazi I`ssa, chairman of the movement's general committee); the mixed Jewish-Arab cities in central Israel; and the north of Israel, where Abbas (Maghar) and Hijzai (Tamra) are prominent.
The southern branch's "identical twin" – the northern branch is opposed to entering the political formal arena in Israel. It operates alongside the southern branch, and has a similar organizational structure and parallel civil array, including a political party that is not integrated into official Israeli politics (it is called al-Wafa wa'al-Islah, Loyalty and Reform, a name that strikingly resembles that of Hamas' parliamentary faction – Change and Reform).
Unlike the northern branch, closely affiliated with external elements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood's strongholds in the region, such as Qatar, Turkey, and the Hamas government, the southern branch's foreign relations are relatively limited, partly because local Islamic groups are daunted by an organization that recognizes the State of Israel, has integrated into the Jewish State's formal political system, and has even joined its ruling coalition.
The Arab public views The United Arab List's integration into the coalition as a historical test. "Old" Arab politics has failed, and a chance is now being given to a new method of integration and clout that does not entail foregoing their self-identity while avoiding having it as a constant source of alienation toward the Jewish population.
If Abbas will succeed, even in part, to provide solutions for the Arab population's fundamental issues – primarily crime, violence, and financial distress – he may become a dominant force in Arab society, and promote the reshaping of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. However, should this endeavor fail, it may lead the Arab public to separate from the State of Israel and the Jewish population, increasing the odds of riots similar to, or worse than those witnessed in May.
Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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