As Israel’s government was sworn in earlier this month, it was the first time in decades that an Arab party joined a coalition in the predominantly Jewish state.
The Islamic Ra’am party, led by Mansour Abbas, joined a coalition with an array of partie. This comes after a period of heightened tensions between Jews and Arabs in Israel, which highlighted the fact that change is needed.
The Arab minority is historically underprivileged. Arab population centers have neglected infrastructure and education systems. Arab Israelis are often discriminated against in the workforce, with less opportunities and lower salaries. Disproportionally high rates of violent crimes in Arab cities and villages have been inadequately dealt with for years.
“This government can do a lot of things, especially about personal safety and crime which are the single most important issues in the Arab society,” said Aziz Haidar from the Sociology Department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “This could completely change the situation.”
“Ra’am in government is unprecedented,” said Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives, a non-governmental organization that promotes Jewish-Arab co-existence.
Surveys conducted by the Abraham Initiatives show the majority of Arab-Israelis support such participation in the government, despite Ra’am representing only a fraction of the Arab population.
The stakes are high. A successful participation in the government could push the minority forward in the society. A failure could lead to increased frustration with the state, and highlight the disenfranchised feeling many Arabs already have.
Historically, for many of Arab parties, joining a coalition would be a betrayal of the Palestinian cause, and a recognition of Israel at the expense of a future Palestinian state and rights.
But throughout the election campaign, Ra’am leader Abbas managed to change the discourse. After years of Arab representatives being active in the opposition, he said he wanted to be part of the decision making process in the country. Abandoning the promise to care for Palestinian rights, Abbas wants to focus on the issues that bother the Arab population in Israel.
“Until now, the Arabs have tried to influence from the opposition,” Abu Rass told Xinhua. “Abbas and Ra’am wanted to try a different way, saying progress cannot be made without fully participating in the political game as being in the opposition is not enough.”
But even before the coalition agreements were signed, the discourse in Israel about active Arab participation in politics and government had changed.
This was due to the fact that as a result of a political decision, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to court Arab voters. He made it suddenly legitimate for all parties to negotiate with Arabs.
Netanyahu, who incited against the Arabs for years, was suddenly in need of their political support when his right-wing base was beginning to dwindle. After four consecutive elections, Netanyahu was ousted, paving the way for a new era in Israeli politics.
“He who excluded the Arabs is the one who in the end legitimized them,” said Haidar. “If he wouldn’t have done that, no other party would have considered including the Arabs. We now see a new discourse.”
In his first success, Abbas secured over 10 billion U.S. dollars in order to develop the Arab sector.
But Abbas and his party will need the cooperation of different ministers, some of them less enthusiastic about the Arab participation in the government.
“There have been similar programs before and none of them were completed,” Haidar told Xinhua. “Also it is not sure at all that this government will bring a meaningful change because there are elements within the government who will oppose this.”
Bennett and his partners have stated that the coalition will try to avert controversial issues and focus on policies that have wide support. It is highly unlikely that the government will try to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Even so, the reality will likely bring contentious issues to the forefront, challenging the fragile coalition and posing a dilemma for an Arab party.
A current debate on a family-reunification bill which prevents Palestinians who marry Israelis from automatically getting Israeli citizenship could be a test for the coalition, but will likely end in compromise later this week.
“National issues will come up and challenge the government. They will try and solve the problems because no one wants Netanyahu back,” Abu Rass added. Enditem