Many people saw the photograph of Mansour Abbas of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel signing with Naftali Bennett, the former head of the Yesha Council of settlements, a coalition agreement that will make Bennett prime minister as a historic moment. The image made waves abroad, and there is talk of putting it in the Smithsonian in Washington, alongside photos of Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, or in a corner depicting the fall of the Berlin wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The outsized enthusiasm that took hold of some mouthpieces for the familiar messages of cooperation and equality is understandable. After nearly 20 years in the cold, the left is part of the government; for the first time ever, the ruling coalition will include an Arab party. For months, the so-called change bloc has seen the party Abbas leads, the United Arab List, as an arm of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and an ally of his Likud party, and therefore its joining the camp that wants to replace Netanyahu as premier cannot be taken lightly. However, it’s premature to declare this a historic turn of events in Israel’s political history.
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Most of the coalition agreement signed by the UAL deals with economic issues, including earmarking more than 50 billion shekels ($15.4 billion) over the course of a few years for aid programs, infrastructure development and Arab local governments. In addition, while the so-called Kaminitz law increasing penalties for illegal building, particularly in Arab communities, will not be abolished, the suspension of enforcement will be extended by an additional two years, through 2024.
The demolition of houses built without permits in the Negev will also be frozen until agreement is reached on a mechanism for handling illegal construction. Forty-five days after the new government is sworn in, three unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev will win official status, and plans are to be drafted for combating violent crime in Arab communities.
UAL says that while the agreement isn’t perfect, its social and economic significance cannot be ignored. There is no guarantee, however, that it will be fully implemented, or even that the new government will survive long enough to do it. Since it signed the agreement, the party has stressed that its goal is to change policy. This, in response to criticism that the agreement deals only with civil matters, and that community development and personal safety are fundamental rights due to constituents as citizens of the state.
Many of the agreement’s critics say the change the Arab community seeks will not happen because of a politicians’ photo-op, more funding or changes in a negligible law. They are calling for comprehensive policy change in all the state’s institutions, and that, they say, is not in the agreement. Critics also say the agreement doesn’t mention the need to enshrine in law national and civil equality between Jews and Arabs. Nor does it mention discriminatory laws such as the nation-state law, the Nakba Law or the law permitting certain types of small communities, built on state land, to vet applicants and thus bar Arab residents from them.
According to the critics, reducing the demands to economic issues raises the concern that later the party will have to bargain over its basic principles and that every instance will lead to yielding more and more basic rights.
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“Equality” is not the only word missing from the coalition deal signed by the UAL: “Jerusalem” is also absent. Now that United Arab List has joined the coalition, its lawmakers, as well as Labor Party and Meretz MKs – particularly the Arab legislators Ibtisam Mara’ana of Labor and Esawi Freige of Meretz – will be unable to ignore their direct and indirect responsibility for every step the new government takes in the Arab and the Palestinian arenas.
Arab society is not expected to make do with funding and civil benefits promised by the agreement, and that is true for future developments in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and at Al-Aqsa Mosque, the legalization of settlements and unauthorized outposts in the West Bank, and of course, military operations and airstrikes in the Gaza Strip.
Anyone who recalls the events of last month can understand the dangers inherent in an agreement that focuses on economic achievements, and imagine what surprises might shuffle the deck and bring down the coalition that has hardly been born yet. To enter the history books, a change is required in the rules of the game; a change that will challenge the establishment. In its decision to sign the coalition agreement and enter the government, the UAL, and to a great extent the other left-wing parties, have joined the game, but they are still very far from changing its rules.