Israel has had many “firsts” in its relatively young life, but the latest is highly controversial: for the first time a purely Arab party has joined the government. And not just “any” Arab party; an Islamist one (RA’AM), to boot! The question asked by almost everyone, Jew and Moslem alike is whether this is “real” or some political machination – and if real, what does it portend?
First, some basic background. Israel’s Islamist movement, akin to the Moslem Brotherhood in the rest of the Middle East, is split into two. The northern part, led by sheikh Raad Salakh, is politically militant and one of the few Israeli parties ever to be prohibited by law. Indeed, its leader was just released from jail after being convicted of incitement to terror. The southern faction, led today politically by Mansour Abbas, is far more moderate – to the extent that it was willing to negotiate with the Likud to join its government after the last elections but in the end decided to go with the coalition that opposed Netanyahu’s return to power.
How is Abbas’s moderation expressed? He has now stated two main things. First, although still supporting the Palestinian cause, his supporters’ central priority is to better their own lives. Most of them are Bedouin in the Negev, the lowest of the low in Israel from a socio-economic standpoint. Many live in illegal housing, with no electricity and even some without running water. Although Israel has made attempts to resettle them in Bedouin-dedicated cities (e.g., Rahat), most have not moved to these for historical-cultural reasons such as their traditional desert nomadic life. RAAM has received coalition promises to electrify many such villages, along with other social necessities (health clinics, better school structures etc.).
Second, the party accepts Israeli sovereignty and even the fact of its being a Jewish State (something that his namesake, Muhammad Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority has not been willing to do). What Abbas demands in return is equality before the law and proportional governmental resources. (We’ll leave aside for the time being that in principle that would also mean Bedouin no longer will marry two wives, itself illegal for the past 70 years, but still prevalent in Israel’s Bedouin society).
All of this is viewed with great suspicion by Israel’s right-wing parties. Here lies a great historical irony, for this is precisely the situation that Jews found themselves in Diaspora (they still do) – and it was also their political stance: full loyalty to the gentile state and its laws, in return for equal civic rights. In fact, Jewish (Halakhic) law had a central principle for this: dina de’malkutah dina – the law of the land is the law (as long as it did not demand transgressing central Jewish commandments).
Thus, when Israel’s extreme right-wing parties – especially the religious ones, Ha’Bayit Ha’yehudi (Jewish Home) and Otzmah Yehudit (Jewish Strength) – rail against RA’AM as being subversive, they are essentially expressing a mirror image of traditional antisemitic tropes, as if non-Jews (irony of ironies: even religiously Islamic!) cannot be loyal to the non-Islamic state in which they live.
It is clearly in Israel’s long-term interest to cultivate this relatively new approach among its Arab minority. Indeed, if Abbas does succeed in receiving the resources promised by the coalition in which he is an important part, then polls show the potential for many (non-religious) Israeli Moslems to switch from the traditional secular Arab parties to RA’AM – assuming that the former don’t change direction and also start focusing on domestic needs instead of their traditional support of their Palestinian brethren “over the line” at the expense of local Arab concerns.
If most of Israel’s Arab parties do change direction, an even bigger consequence would ensue: undercutting the Likud’s traditional coalition, given that for the past few decades its main electoral platform has been based on hardline fear and hatred of Palestinians – local and in the territories. Under Begin, the Likud’s major issue was decentralizing and liberalizing the economy; during Bibi’s first government, economic privatization was a key policy issue. Since then, it has been almost all negativity. With at least the domestic half of that negativity neutralized, it will have to find some central constructive policy plank – while the center-left enjoys the fruits of Israeli-Arab partnership.
In short, RA’AM’s joining the government (again, something that Bibi himself tried desperately to do during the last post-election coalition talks) is not merely a sign of change in Israel’s Arab community; it might well be a harbinger of vaster political change in Israel during the coming years and decades.