The decision by the United Arab List's Shura Council – an advisory body of religious leaders – to freeze the party's membership in the governing coalition could be seen as a red card for the government, or it could be perceived as the opposite.
The move allows both sides of the coalition to climb down from the tree, and find a solution to the actual political crisis by the end of the Knesset session in May.
The Shura Council’s meeting was conducted online, which indicates that it wasn’t the kind of meeting where fateful decisions with immediate and long-term consequences are taken.
The meeting was called at the request of several of the council’s 35 members, among them UAL party leader Mansour Abbas.
Since last Friday’s clashes on the Temple Mount between Israeli forces and Palestinians, the party’s lawmakers and the Islamic Movement’s leadership have come under immense public pressure. The police crackdown on Palestinian stone-throwers, including mass arrests, at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque left Abbas little choice but to draw a red line.
In the wake of the events, the government was expected to try to defuse the situation, especially after attempts by Egypt and other countries to mediate and UAL lawmaker Mazen Ghanayim threatened to leave the coalition.
But renewed clashes on Sunday in Jerusalem’s Old City, with Israeli police entering the Al-Aqsa compound again, shattered this hope. Abbas and other UAL leaders realized quickly that the tensions weren't about to vanish anytime soon, and that the party's influence on the government policy appeared limited at best, or nonexistent at worst.
The decision of the Shura Council, however, shows that Abbas and his UAL team aren’t rushing to jump ship – more out of desperation than strength.
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From the party’s perspective, leaving the coalition immediately, calling for a vote of no confidence, or voting to disperse the Knesset during the spring recess would have meant no turning back. In fact, bringing down the government would've been even riskier than joining the coalition in the first place.
However, opting to freeze its coalition membership offers the party an exit strategy.
The clashes on the Temple Mount certainly present a serious challenge to the UAL, but it is by no means the first: Voices in the party have been calling on the members to leave the coalition since the crisis over Jewish National Fund tree-planting in the Negev in January – when the executive arm of the Israel Land Authority, decided to plant forests in the Negev and turn them into tinder for one of the worst confrontations between the Bedouin and the security forces.
So far, Abbas has succeeded in fending off criticism and focusing on his accomplishments: His plan to fight against violence in Arab society, the government program to develop Arab communities, the law connecting houses built without a permit to the electrical grid.
The UAL sees these as confidence-building measures for the Arab public, which justify their trailblazing membership in the coalition. But senior members of the party also understand that this is not quite enough for their leader Mansour Abbas to present their decision to join the coalition as an out-and-out success.
For Abbas’ immediate circle, the Interior Ministry seems to be one of their key problems. Senior party members say that ministry officials, acting under instruction from Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, are delaying the implementation of the programs. If elections were held anytime soon, it would be difficult for the UAL to show real achievements on the ground.
The Shura Council and Abbas himself took this into account when they acted on Sunday: They know that the collapse of the government now over a religious-national crisis and will only embolden the right ahead of the next election.
In light of the situation, the deal to freeze their membership in the government is aimed at buying time, and enabling the two sides to fix the damage that has been caused. It provides an opportunity to give the government another go.