Inclusion of an Arab Islamist party in Israel’s nascent coalition government has sparked widespread reaction.
The United Arab List (UAL, or Ra’am according to its Hebrew acronym) joined the centrist Yesh Atid and Blue and White, nationalist Yamina and Yisrael Beitenu, leftist Meretz and Labor and New Hope right-wing parties to garner a paper-thin majority for the 36th Israeli government. The diverse group was largely united by the common quest to unseat the country’s longest serving premier, Caretaker Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
While MKs elected by Israel’s 21% Arab minority have in the past lent support on various matters to past Israeli leaders, the UAL would be the first party to join an Israeli government – whose parliamentary approval is still pending.
The party is the political wing of the southern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement which traces its origins traced to the Muslim Brotherhood, and was established in 1971 on ideological principles of Anti-Zionism, Islamism, Conservatism and a Two-State solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In January, the UAL split from its 6-year alliance with the main Arab Joint List umbrella group after it unsuccessfully advocated cooperation with Caretaker Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and other right-wing factions to improve living conditions for Arabs.
The UAL ran independently in the 23 March Israeli elections, winning 4 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
UAL leader Mansour Abbas, 47, is a dentist from the mixed Druze, Muslim and Christian village of Maghar, near the Sea of Galilee. Prior to signing the coalition deal with his new Jewish political partners, Abbas sought and received approval from the Islamic Movement’s advisory Shura Council, a religious body that has guided the party’s past votes in parliament on LGBT rights and other issues.
“We decided to join the government in order to change the balance of political forces in the country,” said Abbas, who hopes to improve conditions for Arab citizens, who complain of discrimination and government neglect.
UAL said the agreement includes the allocation of more than 53 billion shekels ($16 billion) to improve infrastructure and curb violent crime in Arab towns. It also reportedly includes provisions freezing demolition of homes built without permits in Arab villages and granting official status to Bedouin towns in the Negev desert, a stronghold for Islamist support, the party said.
“I say here clearly and frankly: when the very establishment of this government is based on our support…we will be able to influence it and accomplish great things for our Arab society,” Abbas declared.
The decision means that UAL would sit in a government likely lead by Prime Minister-hopeful Naftali Bennett, a former leader of the major Yesha Jewish settlement Council.
While Bennett had long advocated Israeli annexation of most of the West Bank land Palestinians seek for a state he appeared to propose a continuation of the status quo with some easing of conditions for Palestinians during his first public remarks on the issue in recent days.
“My thinking in this context is to shrink the conflict. We will not resolve it. But wherever we can (improve conditions) – more crossing points, more quality of life, more business, more industry – we will do so,” Bennett told Israel’s Channel 12 TV station yesterday.
“The truth must be told: The national struggle between Israel and the Palestinians is not over territory. The Palestinians do not recognize our very existence here, and it would appear that this will be the case for some time,” he said, but that any reservations he may have had over UAL’s participation in the emerging government were allayed as there “was not one nationalist word” in Abbas’ demands.
Bennett added that a turning point in his opinion of Abbas came when the Arab leader temporarily halted coalition negotiations during the 11-day Operation Guardian of the Walls between Israel and Gaza in May, as well as when he made a special solidarity visit to a synagogue that had been torched during mob violence between Jewish and Arab citizens within the country related to the conflict. Abbas made.
“I saw a person who was decent and brave,” said Prime Minister-Designate Bennett.
Abbas also expressed condolences and his “difficult feelings over the terrible disaster” following the Lag B’Omer accident overnight 29-30 April that killed 45 Jewish worshippers at a religious festival at Mount Meron in the north of the country.
Meanwhile, many Israeli Arabs have condemned Abbas’ decision for siding with what they see as the enemy.
Former political ally Sami Abou Shehadeh of the Joint List accused UAL of having “dramatically changed its historical political behavior” by joining with Bennett and other right-wing leaders, calling it “a very big crime.” He added that, “Bennett was the head of the Yesha Council. We’re talking about dangerous people, and supporting them means that Mansour Abbas has chosen to stand with the extreme settler right against the interests of our people.”
Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza mostly dismissed the possibility of change in Israeli government, saying that Bennett would likely pursue the same right-wing agenda as Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) representative Bassem Al-Salhi said Bennett is no less radical than the Likud leader, and that the Yamina head “will make sure to express how extreme he is in the government.”
“He is a traitor. What will he do when they ask him to vote on launching a new war on Gaza?” Badri Karam, 21, in Gaza told Reuters.
“There is no difference between one Israeli leader and another,” said Ahmed Rezik, 29, a government worker in Gaza said, adding, “They are good or bad for their nation. And when it comes to us, they are all bad.”
The Islamist Hamas-rulers of Gaza said it made no difference who governs Israel.
“Palestinians have seen dozens of Israeli governments throughout history, right, left, center, as they call it. But all of them have been hostile when it comes to the rights of our Palestinian people and they all had hostile policies of expansionism,” insisted Hamas Spokesman Hazem Qassem.
Earlier this week, the Hamas terror group called for Palestinians to embark on a ‘Day of Rage’ today against Israel and the presence of Jews on the Temple Mount, where Muslims built the al -Aqsa Mosque atop the ruins of both biblical temples.