Arabs feel the change of participating in Israeli politics - analysis

For Abbas, entering the political game was about promoting the interests of Arab citizens of Israel while setting the Palestinian issue aside.

 Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra'am party, leads a faction meeting in the Knesset on October 4, 2021 (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra'am party, leads a faction meeting in the Knesset on October 4, 2021
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

It has been almost a year since the Bennett-Lapid government was sworn in, making history with the first-ever participation of an Islamist party in an Israel ruling coalition. It kick-started with a promise to address many of the issues plaguing the Arab society in Israel; there has been progress but also stagnation.

The formation of the government on June 13, 2021 came in the immediate aftermath of one of the lowest points in relations between Jews and Arabs in the country. Violent confrontations, especially in “mixed cities” where large numbers of both communities live, saw tensions between the populations soar. As Israel fought an 11-day war against Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza in May 2021, there was also a war within its borders. Pent-up political and socioeconomic frustrations set some neighborhoods ablaze.

Traditionally, Arab parties have remained in the opposition. They considered participation in Israeli governments as a betrayal of their Palestinian brothers who remained under Israeli control in the occupied territories.

“This government has put to test relations between Arabs and Jews,” said Professor Hillel Frisch, from the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv. “It proves the tensions are still very much here, with two communities that have completely opposing attitudes. But the tensions are mitigated as more resources are allocated to tackle the problem.

“This is a historic and incredibly important attempt,” Frisch added.

 Arabs in the Old City of Jerusalem. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Arabs in the Old City of Jerusalem. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel have always been tricky. Many Jews view the Arab population as a potential threat to the nation’s security. Arabs, who make up 21% of the 9.5 million-strong population, face widespread discrimination. Throughout the state’s history, they have very gradually integrated into society. But, as a whole, they are less educated and poorer, living in areas with neglected infrastructure and high crime.

Unprecedented expectations

When the United Arab List party, known by the Hebrew acronym Ra'am, joined the government, expectations were high among many Arab Israelis.

Led by Mansour Abbas, the conservative Islamist party extracted Israel from a lengthy political crisis after four consecutive deadlocked elections. Ra’am’s four lawmakers (out of a total of 120) are critical in keeping the shaky coalition government together.

For Abbas, entering the political game was about promoting the interests of Arab citizens of Israel while setting the Palestinian issue aside. This was not only a product of the dire needs of the large minority in Israel but also a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being sidelined, with no solution in sight.

As part of the coalition agreement, massive budgets were promised to deal with the pressing issues. An unprecedented five-year plan was approved by the government, allotting billions of dollars to a wide range of issues. Called “Takadum,” or “progress,” it was a promise of a new beginning in relations between Arab and Jew. The goal to reduce inequality finally had a price tag attached, making it more than just words.

“It is too soon to assess the impact of the budgets,” said Dr. Nasreen Haddad Haj-Yahya, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. “But the fact that professionals from the Arab society were part of designing the plans, makes them more precise. This helped the state build a holistic and integrative plan that can provide a response to the challenges facing the society.”

Fadi Maklada, a social activist, said, “There is a change and in a lot of ways, this was the change that Arabs wanted more than anything – more than infrastructure, planning, and construction, they wanted legitimacy. There is an understanding today that investing in Arabs and allocating funds to Arab localities is not a sin, but rather it is legitimate and even desired.”

Coalition troubles

Improvement in infrastructure, education, employment, and other areas has been lagging, as was highlighted in a recent political crisis that almost toppled the government.

On May 19, Member of Knesset Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi of the left-wing Meretz party announced her resignation from the coalition due to what she called “hawkish” policies adopted by the government, citing recent tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem. This left the government outnumbered 59-61 by the opposition in the legislature.

Three days later, she was coaxed into withdrawing her resignation in exchange for a promise to hasten the funneling of funds to Arab municipalities.

The government, led by the Orthodox-nationalist Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, has often come under criticism from the right flank of the opposition. Every time money is promised to promote Arab causes, Bennett is accused of not being right-wing enough.

Last year was record-breaking criminal violence within Arab communities. According to the Abraham Initiatives, a nongovernmental organization that promotes Jewish-Arab coexistence, 126 Arabs were killed in violent incidents. Half of them were under 30 years old, a testament to the grim horizon many youngsters face without major state-sponsored change. The factors helping crime thrive are supposed to be tackled by Takadum and other plans.

According to research conducted by Haj-Yahya, the situation is worst in mixed Jewish-Arab cities. The poverty rate among Arabs in such cities has sky-rocketed, there is a decrease in male participation in the workforce, and fewer people are getting access to higher education. Almost half of the Arab children in mixed cities live in poverty, a rate an astounding four-and-half times greater than for Jewish kids.

“Youngsters in mixed cities especially do not have a horizon; they are a ticking time bomb,” Haj-Yahya told The Media Line.

Events of May 2021 highlighted just this as Arabs and Jews clashed violently in mixed cities. While it was tensions surrounding Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem that sparked the violence, the frustration that had built up for years helped fuel it.

“There will always be events, with a national or religious background, that will highlight the divisions,” said Frisch, who believes such events will endanger government stability.

Violence in the Arab sector

The motivation for Israeli governments to take action primarily comes from their reluctance to see violence in Arab cities and villages spill over into Jewish population centers.

“I would rather the state take care of the Arab citizens because of their duty to care for every citizen, but if the Jewish interest is what motivates the government, then so be it; something must be done,” Haj-Yahya said.

A marked change has been seen in police efforts to decrease violence. Law enforcement and policing have been a persistent challenge for which both sides bear responsibility.

“This change is critical for the sense of security and for the feeling that things are improving,” said Maklada.

For decades, Israeli police have been reluctant to enter Arab cities and collect illegal weapons. Arabs have been hesitant in cooperating with police investigations, leaving many crimes unsolved and unpunished.

“The discourse now is very respectful and there is less talk and more action, with good intentions,” said Haj-Yahya. “For years, Arabs were seen as a problem and not as part of the solution.

“It’s not only about budgets, it’s about basic rights and recognition,” she said.

The stability of the current government has been in question from the very beginning, partly due to the presence of an Arab party and the inherent tension that comes with the partnership.

Success could mean a new chapter in relations between Arabs and Jews and possibly greater participation of Arabs in the political arena.

“In the end, there is an understanding that without cooperation, there will be no progress,” Maklada said.