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Islamist Leader Won Legitimacy in Israel's Election. Now He Wants a Place at the Table

Hadash and Ta'al recommended Lapid. Balad and the Abbas' United Arab List didn't. If a government is formed, however, they will have to start delivering results

Jack Khoury
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United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas at the Knesset last week.Credit: Noam Moshkovitz/Knesset Spokesperson
Jack Khoury

The expiration of Benjamin Netanyahu’s mandate and President Rivlin’s upcoming decision on whom to task with forming a coalition has again put the Arab parties, headed by the United Arab List, to the test of which candidate they will recommend for that task. After all the deliberations in the previous round a month ago, the issue became a moot point after Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party sealed off any possibility of a tight race between Netanyahu and Lapid.

But this time the situation is different. Lapid searched for any vote that could bolster his position, so that a recommendation from Sa’ar on the right and a similar position taken by the United Arab List and the Joint List can only do him good.

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The Joint List, as was the case last time around, held serious deliberations, with its Balad faction persisting in its position of not recommending anyone, while the Hadash faction hosted some pointed arguments between MK Aida Touma-Sliman and Ofer Cassif on one side and Ayman Odeh on the other. The latter considered recommending Lapid if he’s first to be premier in a rotation agreement.

The caucus meeting on Tuesday examined several scenarios, with concerns raised that recommending Lapid will ultimately bring about a Bennett-led government. The party was wondering what Rivlin’s position would be, and whether he had already decided on Lapid without their input. The Ta’al faction leaned toward recommending Lapid, adding their two votes to this move.

The prospect of Lapid getting the mandate brought the Joint List back to the center of attention. As long as Netanyahu was conducting negotiations on forming a government, they were out of the loop, lacking any options. Ultimately, it was decided that Hadash and Ta’al would recommend Lapid, with Balad opposed.

The United Arab List, which wanted a right-wing government that would depend on them, enjoyed the wooing up to the last minute. A decision by Religious Zionism leader Smotrich to support a Netanyahu government that depended on the United Arab List would have given the party unprecedented power, but this option faded with the expiry of Netanyahu’s mandate.

Party chairman Mansour Abbas on Wednesday continued with his policy of ambiguity regarding any decision the party might make. Abbas realizes that he has less leverage in a Lapid-Bennett government, but the party says it will not change its strategy, and that any support they give one of the blocs will require something in exchange.

Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid at the Knesset last week.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

Abbas gave an example of this in a radio interview on A-Shams radio Wednesday morning, disclosing that in discussions over a bill for the direct election of the prime minister he demanded the cancellation of the Kaminitz Law, which curbs construction in Arab communities in a discriminatory manner, and also raised the issue of budgets for Arab local councils. Likud did not accede to these demands.

“I told Likud that direct elections for a prime minister will weaken us like it will other Knesset factions, which is why we want something in exchange. We presented our demands but they never got back to us, which is why they didn’t get our support. We have no intention of changing this policy,” he said.

Abbas adopted this stance throughout the party’s discussions until the final decision was taken not to recommend anyone. For him, the game now revolves around the formation of a government. In contrast to the Joint List, he is maintaining contact with Bennett without dismissing the option of supporting a Bennett-led government, assuming his demands are met and as long as he holds the pivotal votes.

The United Arab List says that since the election, it has been at the focus of public discourse and been wooed by almost the entire political spectrum. A meeting between an Arab lawmaker and a senior Religious Zionist rabbi such as Rabbi Haim Druckman has broken taboos and would have been chalked up as an achievement had it succeeded. The party admits that such a move could hurt them among Arab voters, but ultimately, the end result is what counts.

The United Arab List understands that every demolition of a Bedouin house in the Negev, every murder in an Arab city and any move against the Arab community or flare-up in the Palestinian arena, including incidents in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah or in the Al-Aqsa compound, will lead to scathing criticism against the party. This was expressed on social media in recent days.

So far, the party can argue that there is still no government and no functioning Knesset, so they cannot provide any answers or show gains yet. But in the coming month, if a government is formed, Arab citizens will raise questions and demand answers. For them, more wooing and more TV studio appearances by Mansour Abbas will no longer be enough. Substantive progress is what they will be looking for.

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