In Israeli election, a chance for Arabs to gain influence - or lose it

Islamist leader Mansour Abbas campaigns in the Arab village of Daburiyya, Israel, on Feb 18, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

KAFR KANNA, ISRAEL (NYTIMES) - Mr Mansour Abbas, a conservative Muslim, is an unlikely political partner for the leaders of the Jewish state.

He is a proponent of political Islam. He heads an Arab party descended from the same religious stream that spawned the militant Hamas movement. And for most of his political life, he never considered supporting the right-leaning parties that have led Israel for most of the past four decades.

Yet if Mr Abbas has his way, he could help decide the next Israeli prime minister after next month's general election, even if it means returning a right-wing alliance to power. Tired of the peripheral role traditionally played by Israel's Arab parties, he hopes his small Islamist group, Raam, will hold the balance of power after the election and prove an unavoidable partner for any Jewish leader seeking to form a coalition.

"We can work with anyone," Mr Abbas said in an interview on the campaign trail in Kafr Kanna, a small Arab town in northern Israel on the site where the Christian Bible says Jesus turned water into wine.

In the past, "Arab politicians have been onlookers in the political process in Israel," he said. Now, he added, "Arabs are looking for a real role in Israeli politics."

Mr Abbas' shift is part of a wider transformation occurring within the Arab political world in Israel.

Accelerated by the election campaign, two trends are converging: On the one hand, Arab politicians and voters increasingly believe that to improve the lives of Arabs in Israel, they need to seek power within the system instead of exerting pressure from the outside. Separately, mainstream Israeli parties are realising they need to attract Arab voters to win a very close election - and some are willing to work with Arab parties as potential coalition partners.

Both trends are born more of political pragmatism than dogma. And while the moment has the potential to give Arab voters real power, it could backfire: Mr Abbas' actions will split the Arab vote, as will the overtures from Jewish-led parties, and both factors might lower the numbers of Arab lawmakers in the next Parliament.

But after a strong showing in the last election, in which Arab parties won a record 15 seats, becoming the third-largest alliance in the 120-seat Knesset, and were still locked out of the governing coalition, some are looking for other options.

"After more than a decade with Netanyahu in power, some Arab politicians have put forward a new approach: If you can't beat him, join him," said Mr Mohammad Magadli, a well-known Arab television host. "This approach is bold, but it is also very dangerous."

Palestinian citizens of Israel form more than a fifth of the Israeli population. Since the founding of the state in 1948, they have always sent a handful of Arab lawmakers to Parliament. But those lawmakers have always struggled to make an impact.

Jewish leaders have not seen Arab parties as acceptable coalition partners - some on the right vilifying them as enemies of the state and seeking the suspension of Arab lawmakers from Parliament. For their part, Arab parties have generally been more comfortable in opposition, lending infrequent support only to centre-left parties whose influence has waned since the start of the century.

In some ways, this dynamic worsened in recent years. In 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited the threat of relatively high Arab turnout - "Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations," he warned on Election Day - to scare his base into voting. In 2018, his government passed new legislation that downgraded the status of Arabic and formally described Israel as the nation-state of only the Jewish people. And in 2020, even his centrist rival, Mr Benny Gantz, refused to form a government based on the support of Arab parties.

But a year later, as Israel heads to its fourth election in two years of political deadlock, this paradigm is rapidly shifting.

Mr Netanyahu is now vigorously courting the Arab electorate. Following his lead, Mr Yair Lapid, a centrist contender for the premiership, said he could form a coalition with Arab lawmakers, despite disparaging them earlier in his career. Two left-wing parties have promised to work with an alliance of Arab lawmakers to advance Arab interests.

Polling suggests a majority of Palestinian citizens of Israel want their lawmakers to play a role in government. Mr Abbas says Arab politicians should win influence by supporting parties that promise to improve Arab society.

Another prominent Arab politician, Mr Ali Salam, the mayor of Nazareth, Israel's largest Arab city, has expressed support for Mr Netanyahu, arguing that despite his past comments, the prime minister is sincere about improving Arab lives.

"In the Israeli political system, it used to be a sin to collaborate with Arab parties or even Arab voters," said Mr Nahum Barnea, one of Israel's best-known columnists. But Mr Netanyahu has suddenly made Arabs "a legitimate partner to any political manoeuvre." "In a way he opened a box that, I hope, cannot be closed from now on," Mr Barnea added.

Critics say Mr Netanyahu is courting Arab voters because he needs them to win, not because he sincerely cares about them. This month he also agreed to include within his next coalition a far-right party whose leader wants to disqualify many Arabs from running for Parliament. And he has ruled out forming a government that relies on Mr Abbas' support.

Next month's election is expected to be as close as each of the previous three.

Mr Netanyahu is currently on trial for corruption charges, and if he stays in power he could pursue laws that insulate him from prosecution.

"What Netanyahu cares about is Netanyahu," said Mr Afif Abu Much, a prominent commentator on Arab politics in Israel.

Likewise, Arab politicians and voters have not shed all their discomfort with Zionism and Israeli policies in the occupied territories. But there is a growing realisation that problems the Arab community faces - gang violence, poverty and discrimination in access to housing and land - will not be solved without Arab politicians shaping policy at the highest level.

"I want different results so I need to change the approach," Mr Abbas said. "The crises in Arab society reached a boiling point." Yet Mr Abbas' plan could easily fail and undercut what little influence Arab citizens currently have.

To run on his new platform, Mr Abbas had to withdraw from an alliance of Arab parties, the Joint List, whose remaining members are unconvinced about working with the Israeli right. And this split could dilute the collective power of Arab lawmakers.

Support for Mr Abbas' party currently hovers near the threshold of 3.25 per cent that parties need to secure entry to Parliament. Even if his party scrapes above the line, there is no guarantee that any contender for the premiership will need or seek the party's support to secure the 61 seats necessary to form a coalition.

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