The changing face of Israeli politics - will things ever be the same?

Since the establishment of the new government, people in Israel have gotten to know a new name: Mansour Abbas, head of the United Arab List.

 MK MOSHE GAFNI stands in the Knesset plenum to voice an argument as MK Mansour Abbas watches alongside him. (photo credit: OLIVER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
MK MOSHE GAFNI stands in the Knesset plenum to voice an argument as MK Mansour Abbas watches alongside him.
(photo credit: OLIVER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Israeli politics is not what it used to be, and it may never be the same again.

During the last few rounds of elections in Israel, and ever since the establishment of the new government, people in Israel have gotten to know a new name: Mansour Abbas, head of the United Arab List (Ra’am). The party is commonly known by its Hebrew acronym Ra’am and is a member of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. Abbas famously partnered with former prime minister Netanyahu, breaking many years of taboo in Israeli politics until officially joining the new ruling coalition block after the last elections, headed by Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Yamina’s Naftali Bennett.

At the end of 2021, and after a few years without an official state budget passed in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament finally approved one, a move notoriously avoided by Netanyahu as a political maneuver meant to undermine Blue and White’s leader, Benny Gantz. This eventually led to Netanyahu’s ouster and to much understandable frustration among some Netanyahu’s Likud party members and their ultra-Orthodox (haredi) partners. Some budget elements were especially painful to the haredi pocket, including a reduction in day-care subsidies and an increase in the price of disposable plastic sets.

During the budget negotiations, veteran Israeli haredi politician Moshe Gafni rose to the Knesset podium and gave an impassioned 20-minute-long speech about the plights of the haredi community. The speech, which was supposed to last 10 minutes only according to Knesset rules, was allowed to continue by the Knesset speaker during that session, one Mansour Abbas of Ra’am. During the speech, Gafni turned to Abbas and spoke of the natural partnership between the haredi parties and Ra’am as “two parties which should be part of any coalition, or sit together in the opposition.” Abbas mentioned he was touched by Gafni’s words’ pain and authenticity. He, therefore, decided to follow up with a special request of the Israeli government to allocate special funding for haredi communities in the amount of NIS 100 million, which will come out of – pay attention – his own Ra’am party’s budgetary allocation.

In a follow-up interview with Israel’s Kan radio, Abbas reiterated that these funds “do not belong to Ra’am party but to the Israeli taxpayer, of all creeds and colors.” He added that “as a member of the coalition, Ra’am has a right to voice its opinion on the state’s budgetary priorities.” He said that “as part of these priorities, the government should do its share to promote haredi society and deal with existing problems there.

MK Mansour Abbas during a discussion on the Electricity Law connecting to Arab and Bedouin towns, during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, January 5, 2022.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)MK Mansour Abbas during a discussion on the Electricity Law connecting to Arab and Bedouin towns, during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, January 5, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

“I was touched,” he concluded, “by the vision of an alliance of the weak in Israeli society.” The haredi politicians refused to accept the gesture for now, but its lingering effects may very well be felt in the future.

Historically, there are some similarities between the evolution of haredi politics in Israel and the steps taken now by Abbas’ Ra’am. For many years, practically until the Likud’s Menachem Begin’s ascension to power in 1977, the haredim played the role of perpetual opposition in Israeli politics, with minor successes here and there. Then, they joined Begin’s coalition block for the first time, but not in any ministerial role. It’s worth noting the same is true now for Abbas, none of whose party members carry any ministerial positions. Interestingly enough, in 1984, the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, made its move. After gaining a few seats in the municipal elections in Jerusalem in 1983, it became the surprise of Israel’s 1984 elections when it successfully entered Israeli national politics.

The move was backed by the Shas rabbinical leadership which carries the ultimate authority in the party, led at the time – and for many years after – by the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Rabbi Yosef passed away in 2013, and his funeral was estimated to be the largest ever in Israel’s history, with close to 900,000 participants. Shas’ political banner has forever been not just safeguarding the interests of the Mizrahi and Mizrahi haredi communities but being a voice for Israeli society’s weakest members. For many years the haredi parties have played a balancing role in Israeli politics, perceived as the key players whose support was crucial for establishing a coalition government in Israel. These days, the haredi parties are considered part of the right-wing bloc, a reality that may change in the future, but for the time being, it leaves us wondering whether the center will now be seized by none other than Abbas’ Ra’am party.

At the end of December, in a speech at the Globes Conference in Tel Aviv, Abbas made yet another surprising statement, never made before by any Arab Knesset member, publicly and in Arabic: “The State of Israel was born as a Jewish state… We have to decide whether we want to engage in campaigns that have a chance of succeeding – and then we’ll be able to develop as a society and prosper, and be an influential sector of society – or whether we want to be in an isolationist position and continue to talk about all these things for another 100 years.” The fact is,” he emphasized, “legally and demographically, the State of Israel is a Jewish state… whether we like it or not, Israel is a Jewish state, and my central goal is to define the status of the country’s Arab citizens.”

Last November, Mansour Abbas said in an interview: “If the Joint Arab List repeats the same mistakes the same positions, which bring no new tidings to Arab society, it will lose its very right to exist.” He later parted ways with the Joint Arab List, and along with former prime minister Netanyahu, opened the door to a new chapter in Israeli politics.

It is a revolution whose second episode is written these very days, one which may redefine Israeli politics forever.

The writer is a former spokesperson of Israel’s Consulate General in NY, a strategic consultant and senior vice president at JBS-Jewish Broadcasting Service.