History was made at the Knesset chamber, the chamber of Israel’s unicameral parliament, with the entrance of an Arab party — Ra’am — into the coalition for the first time.
With a majority of 60 to 59, by just one vote, Israel’s new government was approved and Yamina leader Naftali Bennett sworn in as the 13th prime minister of Israel. While the new coalition has ensured ousting of Bibi, the longest-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it has also made history by creating major political milestones for the country.
Many ‘Firsts’ In New Israel Government
In one such milestone, history was made at the Knesset chamber, the chamber of Israel’s unicameral parliament, with the entrance of an Arab party — Ra’am — into the coalition for the first time, and its participation in shaping the face of the government in Israel. This historic change ensured that the next government is not going to be a typical one for the citizens of the state of Israel, and especially for members of the Palestinian Arab minority, who are 20% of Israel’s population. This is the first time the Zionist political parties forming the government are including an Arab party.
An interesting thing about this diverse coalition formed by Yair Lapid, former journalist and the chairman of the Yesh Atid party, is that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is the leader of the radical right-wing political party Yamina, whose ideologies and interests contradict the Arab party’s interests, and which has opposed Arab participation in the coalition or government. However, Bennett’s national-religious political movement, which represents many Jewish settlers, signed the coalition agreement with Ra’am, the Islamic Arab party.
The Jew-Arab Gap
For the last 73 years, all the governments in Israel were formed only by the Jewish Zionist parties. There was only one exception when the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin relied on the support of an Arab party in the wake of the Oslo Peace Accords in the 1990s. The agreement, however, did not formalize that party’s entry into the ruling coalition. However, Rabin’s decision was seen by Israel’s right as an unforgivable sin, making him a traitor in their eyes. This ultimately led to Rabin’s assassination. Bennett presently stands at a similar point in the history of the Jewish-majority country.
The coalition agreement signed with Ra’am is of historical significance for the Arab community in particular and for Israeli society as a whole, since it is a precedential move for an Arab party to participate in the political game in Israel officially and fully, not indirectly or under the table.
This change was perhaps perceived well by the United States as only an hour into the new government being sworn in, US President Joe Biden called Bennett to congratulate him on entering office. Netanyahu had to wait nearly a month before he received a call from the American president after his inauguration in January.
Today President Biden spoke with Prime Minister Bennett to congratulate him on becoming Prime Minister of Israel. Our governments will work closely together on all the important issues in our bilateral relationship. https://t.co/lZYGY1aNss
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) June 13, 2021
Though Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett should alone not get the credit for pulling off this wonder. Netanyahu had invested a lot in legitimizing Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Ra’am, in the hope that he could form a government with him. However, this decision by Bibi came back to haunt him as it only helped his rivals in the “change camp” to form a government.
Significance of Arab Participation
Mansour Abbas called the participation of Ra’am in the coalition a “courageous move”. This move has won Ra’am the leadership of two Knesset committees — the interior committee and the committee on Arab community affairs. The party also received the role of deputy chairman of the Knesset and deputy minister at the prime minister’s office, together with quite a few economic plans and budgets for the Arab community.
Abbas undoubtedly succeeded in his mission to influence the political game in Israel in order to improve the situation of the Arab community. However, not all Arabs are happy with this political development.
The reason for some fraction of the Arab population being dissatisfied with this move is that what drove the first Arab party into a ruling coalition now was not the desire for a peace agreement. It was the poor state of Israeli politics after four election rounds in two years without a clear winner, combined with the strong desire of the opposition, called the “Change Bloc,” to oust longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Though Netanyahu had delivered some hostile remarks during the previous elections when he urged the settlers to cast their votes against the Arabs who “are voting in droves”, he later understood the potential need to cooperate with the Arab parties after failing in the latest election to both discourage the Arab vote and ensure a majority of his own. That was the reason why after all other efforts to form a ruling coalition failed, he tried to lure Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas to his side even before Bennett did, but to no avail.
Abbas, for his part, proposed to change the way Arab parties deal with the Jewish parties and politics in Israel.
“I say here clearly and frankly: When the very establishment of this government is based on our support … we will be able to influence it and accomplish great things for our Arab society,” Abbas said.
Despite the serious disagreement among the Arabs over his approach, Abbas is convinced that his party’s governing responsibilities will change the face of Israeli politics in all matters related to the Arab minority and will show positive results for the rights and status of Arab citizens in Israel.
“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 organized crime,” Abbas said.
To help the Arab sector, among the promises he got from his new partners in the incoming government are the adoption of a five-year economic development plan for the Arab community with a budget of 30 billion shekels, or $US9.3 billion, as well as plans to combat crime and violence in the Arab community, to improve infrastructure, to advance Arab local authorities, and to reconsider the Kaminitz Law, which has led to increased demolitions of, and evictions from, Palestinian property, The Conversation reported.
The agreement also includes recognition of several Bedouin villages in the Negev, the southern district of Israel where a majority of the country’s Bedouins live. Bedouin is a tribe of nomadic Arabs of the desert.
Abbas, by many in the Arab community, and especially among the Bedouins, has been seen emerging from this election as a victorious leader. He has recorded for himself and the Islamic movement several historical achievements on many important levels.
On a policy level, Abbas has secured programs, budgets and decisions that support the needs of the Arab minority. However, his more significant achievement is the fundamental change signaled by the acceptance of Arab parties into Israeli politics and the recognition of Arab political parties as legitimate partners in the politics and power-sharing in Israel. This milestone was something the Arab parties failed to achieve since 1948.
However, looking at the recent Israeli politics, with four elections in two years, it’s not certain that this government will last either. But regardless of political developments, this marks a big day for the Arab community in Israel as many from around the world welcome the historic change.
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