Small Arab party emerges as unlikely focus of jockeying over Israel's next government

When Israel emerged from its fourth election in two years and the country’s ongoing political deadlock seemed seemingly unbroken, an unlikely number emerged as potential kingmakers in the Jewish state: an Arab-Islamist politician and former dentist.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies failed to achieve the parliamentary majority that would keep Netanyahu in power, according to a final vote released Thursday.

The anti-Netanyahu camp also lacks a collective majority and consists of a broad spectrum of parties that seem united only in the desire to oust Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

Netanyahu and his allies won 52 seats in the 120-seat parliament known as the Knesset, while his opponents captured 57.

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In order for the two camps to cobble together the 61 seats needed to form a majority coalition government, they will likely need the support of the United Arab List, a small Islamist party that won four seats in this week’s elections. This has put Mansour Abbas, his leader, in the spotlight as a figure who, in theory, could hold the keys to power.

No Arab party has ever served in an Israeli government, and the chances that that will happen now, despite the effort, are still slim.

Reuven Hazan, a professor in the Political Science Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says Netanyahu could muster a mathematical majority, but bringing ultra-orthodox and far-right lawmakers together with an Arab-Islamist party just didn’t work ideologically.

“To put together an Islamic party with the two ultra-religious Jewish parties, this will be a Passover miracle,” he said as Israel prepared to celebrate the holidays this weekend.

“Ideologically, I think you’re stretching the envelope way, way too far,” he added.

Mansour Abbas, chairman of the United Arab List, will vote on Tuesday at a polling station in the northern village of Maghar.Ahmad Gharabli / AFP – Getty Images

Abbas comes from the Islamic Movement in Israel, inspired by the regional movement of the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1996, the movement split over differences of opinion over whether to participate in Israeli politics.

A branch led by a clergyman currently in jail for inciting terrorism has boycotted Israeli politics. A second branch, to which Abbas belongs, has taken a more forgiving stance.

The United Arab List, also known by the Hebrew name Raam, is based on religiously conservative elements of the 2 million strong Israeli Arab minority 20 percent of the country’s 9.2 million inhabitants.

They are Israeli citizens and are increasingly represented in professional professions, from medicine to microfinance. However, according to Adalah, a human rights organization and legal center, they are also discriminated against on issues such as housing and budget allocation.

For Netanyahu, rapprochement with Abbas would require him to seek support from a population he has previously slandered.

In 2015, Netanyahu warned his right-wing base that Arabs would “flock” to the elections. In 2019, he posted almost hourly updates on Facebook, urging supporters to counter what he portrayed as a dangerously high turnout among Arab voters.

However, ahead of Tuesday’s election, Netanyahu tried to woo the Arab vote as he sought re-election.

Abbas has suggested that he be open to negotiating with the pro group or the anti-Netanyahu group.

“For us, whoever wants to get in touch with us, we will be happy to hold talks with them and raise our positions and demands,” he said on Wednesday in an interview with the Israeli news website Ynet.

However, it was far from clear whether Netanyahu could convince one of his right-wing allies to agree to serve alongside an Arab Islamist party.

“A right-wing government is not formed on the basis of Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List. Period,” Bezalel Smotrich, chairman of an alliance of far-right parties known as the Religious Zionist Party, said on social media Thursday.

The Religious Zionist Party includes a new incarnation of the Kahanist movement, inspired by an American-born rabbi who advocated a Jewish theocracy and the eviction of Palestinians.

Even with Abbas, Netanyahu would likely have to secure the support of a former adjutant who became a critic, Naftali Bennett.

Bennett, a die-hard nationalist, has not committed to either camp either. However, the Associated Press reported that he had ruled out an alliance with Abbas. A Bennett spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While Netanyahu’s political future is again pending, he is still being charged with fraud, bribery and breach of trust. He denies any wrongdoing. The court case plays a huge role in the political horse trade, and many opponents say it shouldn’t rule the country while it is on trial.

However, it is not just elements of the Israeli right that have refused to work with Arab parties to break the endless electoral backlog.

Before last year’s election, the centrist blue and white leader was Benny Gantz said He would not accept the Joint List – an alliance of Arab parties that included Raam at the time – in his government because of differences of opinion with their leaders on national and security issues.

“They make up 21.22 percent of the Israeli population,” said Mansour Nasasra, professor of Middle East politics and international relations at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, referring to the country’s Arab citizens.

“This is a large minority. You have a say in Israeli politics. You can’t ignore that forever, ”he added.

Nasasra said he was skeptical that Abbas would be the one to elect Israel’s next prime minister because of disagreements over Israeli rights.

“Basically, you have to rely on him. Otherwise there is no government, ”he said, referring to Netanyahu and his allies.

“But it is unlikely to happen. You may decide to go to another election instead of relying on an Islamic party to form a government.”

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