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Winds of Change Are Stirring in Israel, but They May Not Be Felt in the Arab Community

Jack Khoury
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Leaders of the Joint List at the President's Residence in early May.
Leaders of the Joint List at the President's Residence in early May, from left: Sami Abu Shehadeh, Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Jack Khoury

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett’s current efforts to form a coalition government are perceived by many people in the Arab community as a tactical move, the only purpose of which is to remove Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from office. It’s a coalition in which Arab Meretz lawmaker Esawi Freige might serve as a cabinet minister and in which Arab Labor Party Knesset member Ibtisam Mara’ana would be part of the governing coalition.

The prospective government’s principles are nothing more than slogans, which each coalition partner could interpret according to its own needs. There is no other way to explain how Meretz and Labor, with their three Arab Knesset members, could support a government led by a quintessential right-wing politician and former head of the Yesha Council of Jewish Settlements, as Bennett presented himself on Sunday night. It would also be a government with a finance minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who regards the representatives of the Arab public as a fifth column.

Despite the apparent ideological disparities among the parties in such a unity government, all of its Zionist partners have managed to unite to eliminate one obstacle that they faced. Its fate would not depend on the Arab parties. The bloc led by Bennett and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid appears to have assured a Jewish majority of 57 Knesset members versus 54 for the Netanyahu camp. (One Arab lawmaker, Sami Abu Shehadeh of the Joint List’s Balad faction has already said he would vote against the new government). Bennett and New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar don’t have to worry about that particular badge of shame.

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The Joint List isn’t shedding tears over the situation. They actually view it as some sort of relief. “The fact that we’re not committed to supporting or opposing this government takes the pressure off us,” one Joint List legislator said. “Imagine a situation in which this government would rise or fall over our votes. We would either have to support Bennett, Sa’ar and Lieberman and face our voters, or oppose the government and be on the same side as [far right-wingers] Smotrich and Ben-Gvir.” For the time being, it’s preferable to sit on the fence and see what happens, the lawmaker added.

For Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List, sitting on the fence is a less tempting option. Abbas, who has spoken a lot about exerting influence from the inside, views the prospect of a unity government as a lifeline for his party and for him personally. Over the past month, his standing has weakened. If he makes do with abstaining, without delivering the goods to his voters, the winds of change could cost him his position. The United Arab List is therefore remaining somewhat vague about its attitude towards such a new government.

Even if they don’t state it publicly, none of the Arab parties would be in a hurry to topple such a government. The Joint List and the United Arab List understand that facing another election campaign in the current environment would almost be tantamount to political suicide. Unlike 2019’s protests against violence in Arab society, which provided a tailwind to Arab leaders, the unrest in the Arab community this May, with its prominent nationalist tinge, was perceived as defiance against those leaders.

United Arab List leader Mansour AbbasCredit: Noam Moshkovitz/Knesset Spokesman's Office

And the military confrontation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza only exacerbated the revulsion in the Arab community over the prospect of another round of Knesset elections. A unity government is therefore the least bad option for the Arab parties.

The remaining question is what such a government could accomplish for the Arab public. As of Sunday night, there were no concrete understandings with the two people who would serve as prime minister during the government’s term, Bennett and Lapid. The list of the Arab parties’ demands have included government funding and development, the promotion of master construction plans, recognition of unauthorized villages in the Negev and plans to combat violence. These are things that in other countries would be seen as self-evident issues needing to be addressed.

Another possible benefit to the community would be suspension of the Kaminitz law, which was passed to crack down on illegal construction in Arab locales. When it comes to the nation-state law, the legislation appears to be firmly in place, and it’s doubtful that any agreement could be reached on amending or rescinding it.

Diplomatic issues are also off the table. They would be shifted to the doorstep of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to rack his brain over.

A demonstration in Jaffa during the fighting between Israel and Hamas in May.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Since 2015, Arab voters have been repeatedly called upon to vote for change. It now appears to be in the offing, but it may not herald any major tidings.

The winds of change may remove Netanyahu from the helm, but may not alter the course that the ship of state is taking.

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