Foiling Netanyahu Vote, Islamist Party's Strategy Pays Off. Now the Pressure Begins

The United Arab List's policy of ambiguity has thrust them to the center of Israeli political and public discourse; meanwhile, the Joint List struggles to find their footing

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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Mansour Abbas at the President's residence, before presenting his recommendation for Prime Minister to President Rivlin, earlier this month
Mansour Abbas at the President's residence, before presenting his recommendation for Prime Minister to President Rivlin, earlier this monthCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

The United Arab List’s decision to vote Monday against Likud on the composition of the Knesset Arrangements Committee – the key body that sets the Knesset’s legislative agenda until a new government is formed – was a tactical decision typical of the recent moves of the party and its leader, Mansour Abbas.

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Ever since the party decided to break away from the Joint List and run independently, its strategy has been clear: Not to be automatically identified with any bloc. The plan is to exploit the political uncertainty to the hilt so the United Arab List (UAL) can set terms and maximize its profit in the public arena, both in Arab society and the general Israeli public.

Abbas’ party – as Abbas makes clear at nearly every opportunity – has managed over the past few months, and certainly after the election, to be the focus of public attention. On Election Day, the question was whether it would exceed the electoral threshold, while the day after it was already perceived as a possible kingmaker. Abbas was the first representative of an Arab party to meet Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid at his home.

The policy of ambiguity continued afterward, and on April 1 the media watched with baited breath as Abbas held a prime time spot to discuss who his party would recommend to the president to form a government. The ambiguity continued through Abbas' meeting with President Reuven Rivlin, as the party refused to endorse any candidate.

For the past two weeks the UAL has remained silent in public, but in private, it is holding meetings with various parties. Yariv Levin of Likud and Arye Dery of Shas were Netanyahu’s primary envoys. From the opposing camp Abbas spoke mainly with Lapid.

When the discussions about the makeup of the arrangements committee began, UAL’s calculations showed that both the Netanyahu bloc and the anti-Netanyahu bloc had 16 seats, leaving its representative on the committee, MK Waleed Taha, as the deciding vote. This gave the party a wide berth to maneuver, Abbas explained.

Abbas has also avoided attacking the heads of Religious Zionism, Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, who have vetoed the formation of a right-wing government with UAL’s support from the outside. But Ben-Gvir, who wasn’t satisfied with making remarks about “terror supporters,” chose to be photographed last week with police officers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on Ramadan.

Religious Zionism MKs at the Temple Mount, last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The photo circulated among Abbas’ supporters, but he chose not to react. This contrasts to Taha and former MK Masud Ganaim, who responded with tweets and posts slamming Religious Zionism. The recent confrontations in Jaffa and East Jerusalem increased the pressure, but Abbas continued to remain silent. So long as he has the power to tip the scales, he will not attack.

The decision to vote against Netanyahu on Monday was made when it emerged that Likud and Yamina were trying to come to an agreement that would remove UAL from the circle of influence on the arrangements committee. Faction members were getting fed up. Members realized that a weak response could lead to a sharp reaction among the Arab public, particularly among the party’s voters. In his discussions with Lapid, Mansour got what he wanted, including chairing the War on Crime Committee, being named deputy Knesset speaker, membership on the powerful Knesset Finance Committee and a decisive voice on the Knesset Arrangements committee, an achievement that shifted the media spotlight off of the Joint List.

Despite these political achievements, party members know they have to deliver some tangible results to the Arab public on issues like combatting increasing violence in Arab society, development and construction, and the unrecognized villages in the Negev. In an interview Tuesday with a Nazareth radio station, Abbas reiterated his position that all political options are open.

Clashes with police in East Jerusalem, earlier this week

“We are guided by a set of principles and we don’t plan to change course,” he said. “Our decision will depend on what we can achieve to the benefit of the Arab public.” He denied reports about the list of demands that he’s made, noting that both the Nation-State Law and the Kaminetz Law (which increases enforcement on building violations) are on the table, though he did not specify what changes he’s prepared to accept. “We are upholding our principles on a civic and national level, and we will act in the interest of UAL and our public,” he said.

A senior party member told Haaretz that the party can be proud of its behavior, both in terms of the election results and in terms of the legitimization of Arab MKs, even in right-wing circles. “We’ve succeeded in bringing ourselves to the center of political and public debate, but we know that it won’t hold up for the long term if we don’t achieve results,” the source said. “Public pressure is increasing. Meanwhile we are explaining [to our voter base] that there is no government, no functioning Knesset and no budget, but that excuse can't hold for long. In the end we have to deliver the goods.”

At the same time, the Joint List is trying to get things moving despite the differing views in the party. While there is agreement that a Netanyahu-led government is unacceptable, there still is no consensus about an alternative Lapid-led government.

Joint List Knesset members in Tel AvivCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

The Balad faction has already made clear that it will not support a government that includes Yamina’s Naftali Bennett. Ta’al said that the Yesh Atid chairman hasn’t yet asked for the Joint List’s active support but is instead relying on abstentions by the Joint List and UAL. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” a party source said. “Right now it’s all theoretical. If they manage to form a government and outline its basic principles, we will consider it then.”

Hadash still hasn’t expressed a clear position on supporting a government formed by the anti-Netanyahu bloc. There have been numerous discussions within the party in recent weeks, with its members weighing whether to convene the party conference in June, when there could be demands that some members be replaced. “If Lapid presents a government, we’re prepared to consider it,” Hadash chairman Ayman Odeh told Haaretz. But even Odeh realizes that’s not a realistic scenario and it’s more likely the government will be headed by Bennett. In that case, Hadash will either oppose or abstain.

Haaretz has learned that discussions within the Joint List have included a suggestion that if Lapid and Bennett agree to form a government that focuses on leading the country out of the pandemic, on social and economic issues, and avoids diplomatic and security minefields, that could be grounds for Hadash and Ta’al to abstain from the vote on the government and thereby assure it a majority. Hadash party sources, however, say this scenario is unlikely and even if it comes to pass, it’s doubtful it would get broad support across the party.

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