It was a surprise when Mansour Abbas, the head of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, announced last year that his United Arab List (Ra’am) political party was joining the Israeli coalition government led by far-right extremist Naftali Bennett. The Israeli media declared the date of the announcement — 2 June, 2021 — to be a “historic day” and described Abbas as the “conservative Islamist” who made history as the first Arab Israeli leader in half a century to sit in a coalition government.
His announcement ended years of political instability in the occupation state as the “first time that an Arab party is part of the process of forming a government” in Israel. “We, of course, hope that it works and that a government will rise after four rounds of elections,” the Israeli media quoted Abbas as saying.
Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as Palestinian citizens of Israel — also occupied territory, of course — condemned Mansour Abbas’s decision to be part of a Zionist government led by a former leader of far-right Israeli settlers who had called for the killing of Palestinian prisoners. When Bennett was told that that was illegal, he responded, “I already killed lots of Arabs in my life, and there is absolutely no problem with that.”
Bennett has since defied the terms of the coalition agreement accepted by Abbas, who keeps justifying such disrespect for him and the Palestinians. This has been very clear in the ongoing Israeli aggression in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque, as well as within Israel itself and the other occupied territories.
There is no doubt that so-called Arab Israelis — Palestinians with Israeli citizenship — viewed last year’s Israeli aggression against Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip as open disrespect to them. That has pushed them to despise Ra’am and its leadership for not taking any action to stop the Israeli occupation attacks on the Palestinians, even though the Arab Israelis were also targeted.
“For decades, Arab Israelis have been without any influence,” Ra’am Knesset Member (MK) Walid Taha told Arabic-language Hala TV when the party joined the coalition government. “Now, everyone knows that we’re the deciding votes as far as politics goes.” In other words, Ra’am was in a position to bring the coalition down; it had leverage to end Israeli attacks, but it did not use it.
When discussing the situation of his fellow Palestinians in Israel, Abbas declared that, “We have reached a critical mass of agreements in various fields that serves the interest of Arab society and that provide solutions for the burning issues in Arab society — planning, the housing crisis, and of course, fighting violence and organised crime.”
These “agreements” have been largely ignored and broken by Bennett’s government. Nevertheless, the supposedly Islamist party took no action and has stayed in the coalition.
Bennett remains hostile towards all Palestinians. In the wake of a series of attacks that saw several Israelis and Palestinians killed between 20 March and 10 April, the prime minister said, “We will get at anyone who has had a direct or indirect connection to the attacks.” More Palestinians, including some unconnected to the aforementioned attacks, have been killed by Israel since then as he confirmed that his approach to the issue is actually collective punishment, illegal under international law. Mansour Abbas, though, is still in the coalition government.
Arab Israelis who voted for Ra’am feel that the party is failing them by not speaking out when, for example, the government of which it is a part continues to give support to the illegal Jewish settlers who desecrate Al Aqsa Mosque in occupied Jerusalem and attack Palestinians and their properties. As with other Palestinians and, indeed, Muslims around the world, they expect the party to take courageous measures for the sake of the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa Mosque, such as quitting the coalition and forcing the dissolution of the government.
Only when dissent appeared from within Ra’am did the leadership do anything. “Resign immediately from the coalition that is attacking our holy sites in Palestine,” wrote senior party official Sheikh Mohammad Salameh Hassan on Facebook. “Do it for Al-Aqsa.”
Abbas duly announced that the party had frozen its membership in the government and the Knesset. This move did not match the anger of Ra’am voters or Arab Israelis, as it was a temporary measure that would not affect the government, and so would not defuse the tension in Jerusalem or push Israel to stop its aggression against the Palestinians and their holy sites.
Moreover, according to the Times of Israel, Hebrew-language news sources said that the freeze was only intended to last for two weeks while the Knesset is in recess. In other words, it is a useless gesture. Indeed, the same sources were reported as adding that the measure was coordinated with Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to ease the pressure on the party and prevent a permanent break with the government.
“Not coming to the Knesset during recess,” mocked Ayman Odeh MK. “A dramatic decision.” Mockery of Abbas’s move was not confined to Arab politicians. “Ra’am’s announcement of freezing their membership in the coalition during the Knesset recess is like announcing a diet during [the fasting month of] Ramadan,” said Jewish MK Ofer Cassif.
Mansour Abbas has downplayed the calls within his party to defect, and Ghnaim said: “We in Ra’am are united. We have a joint leadership, we came into the coalition to advance the Arab public’s interests. We do that and do our part to calm spirits and bring people together.” He added that the decision on the temporary freeze was reached during meeting of the Consultative Council of the party which was held to address the Israeli aggression in Al-Aqsa Mosque. The best response it could come up with was to keep away from parliament when MKs would not be there in any case due to the recess.
All of this suggests to me that the nominal “freeze” proves that the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel is now a de facto Zionist organisation; not just its leader Mansour Abbas and its MKs and officials, but the whole organisation.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.