Abu Yair’s Passover Miracle: For Netanyahu, the Arabs Are Suddenly Kosher

Israel's Arab citizens are finally playing a role in coalition negotiations for a new government, a step that seemed unimaginable not too long ago

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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United Arab List head Mansour Abbas on Wednesday.
United Arab List head Mansour Abbas on Wednesday.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

Whether a “full” right-wing government is formed, or a government of “change,” or whether we are heading toward a fifth Knesset election – without a doubt the truly big change over the past year in the Israeli political system has been the full legitimization of participation by elected representatives of the Arab community in the coalition game.

After years of exclusion and incitement, the fact that from round-to-round Arab voters held a critical balance of power in the insoluble and never-ending tie between the blocs, has led to new trends that were unimaginable not too long ago.

For years, the left has talked about a need to build a new democratic camp of true Jewish-Arab partnership. But the center, which is always looking to its right, was not yet ready for it. Yair Lapid symbolized this more than anything else with his “Zoabis” incident. This year, everything has changed.

First we saw the secret negotiations after the previous election between the Kahol Lavan bloc and The Joint List over forming a government with the Arab alliance’s support, a move that almost came to fruition after the third election, but was blocked in the end by Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser and Benny Gantz’s inability to handle the two of them. At the same time, the coronavirus crisis, a time of exceptional civil emergency in a country that is mainly used to military crises of a nationalist tint, put the centrality of Arab citizens as medical professionals in focus, and the understanding that everyone in the country was in the same boat.

The coronavirus ward at the Rambam Health Care Campus, Haifa in May

But the grand finale was of course the “Abu Yair” trick. Benjamin Netanyahu, in an especially cynical move, came to curse – to split, divide and spread despair among Arab voters – and found himself blessing them. The fact that he suddenly began courting Arab voters, while holding warm contacts with no less than the representative of the Islamic Movement, put the entire campaign of incitement that preceeded it into a totally absurd light – and made it kosher for Passover, and kosher in general for Arabs of all persuasions to participate in forming the next government. And on both sides.

The split in the Joint List, may have in the short term harmed the political power of the Arab community, whose strength in previous rounds of elections was mostly tied to that party’s unity. But in the broader picture, the split made the Arab community a stronger player in both of Israel’s main political blocs, the conservative and the liberal blocs. So much so that Mansour Abbas is, at least for the moment, the one who alongside Naftali Bennett, will be the ones to crown the next government and Netanyahu needs Abbas’s support to the same extent that he needs Itamar Ben-Gvir. Who would have believed it, and they are still calling the other bloc “incoherent.”

This turning point in the status of the representatives of the Arabs in the Knesset has suddenly drawn great interest from Israeli media about the in-depth processes underway among some 20 percent of its society, which is usually completely ignored by the journalistic mainstream. Arab commentators suddenly have begun to visit the television studios, and in doing so everyone has benefitted. For example, on Wednesday evening, journalist Mohammed Magadli from Nas Radio sat in the Channel 12 News studio for the 8 p.m. broadcast, and explained – in a way that has never been heard before in such a situation – why it is logical and legitimate for Arab MKs to visit security prisoners in Israeli lockups. “Every Arab MK visited prisoners in prison, it is part of the activities of every Arab MK in Israel.” he made clear without even blinking, while seated next to Amit Segal.

A Likud campaign poster in the Bedouin town of Rahat, last week

It is a shame that during the coverage of this election they didn’t bother to talk about everyone barred from voting but who have have impact on everyone’s lives – for example residents of East Jerusalem, and of course on a different plane, the Palestinians, too, who live under Israeli control without any civil status. We are still not there yet, maybe we will get there if Netanyahu needs their votes to evade his trial.

This process of normalization agreements with Israel’s Arab citizens, if it continues this way, could very well change the future of the country.

The ball has now bounced back to the center-left court. Netanyahu has made Jewish-Arab partnership kosher for them – so much so that his mouthpieces on Twitter are explaining to us now that there is no problem whatsoever in principle with joining up with the United Arab List, a party that Yair Netanyahu called in the past a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and which he compared to Hamas.

The question of whether parties such as Labor and Meretz will not be too blinded and intoxicated by their specific achievements of passing the electoral threshold to win seats in the Knesset, to implement what everyone has not stopped talking about for over a full year: Building a broad-based Jewish-Arab liberal political camp.

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