Will Ra'am make a difference for Palestinians in Israel?
The entry of Ra’am, or the United Arab List, into Israel’s new coalition government has aroused mixed feelings so far, especially among Palestinians and in the wider Arab world.
The new Israeli government, formed by centrist Yair Lapid and led by religious nationalist Naftali Bennet, is certainly a complex team.
The first Palestinian party to be part of a ruling coalition, the conservative Islamist movement joined right-wing nationalist parties such as Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) and Yamina, centrists Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) and Kahol Lavan (Blue and White), and leftist parties Labour and Meretz.
It’s the first time in 12 years that former Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is not in power. But the real novelty lies in the presence of a Palestinian party among the political forces in the government.
"The entry of Ra'am, or the United Arab List, into Israel's new coalition government has aroused mixed feelings so far, especially among Palestinians and in the wider Arab world"
Ra’am is one of the movements that represents Palestinian citizens of Israel, the descendants of those who remained within the borders of the newly established Israeli state after the expulsion of over 750,000 Palestinians in 1948.
There are roughly 1,890,000 Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, around 20.95% of the total population.
Ra’am was formerly part of the Joint List, a political alliance of Palestinian parties in Israel, but split from them ahead of elections this year.
It forms part of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel which broke from the northern branch over political participation in the Knesset and the Oslo Accords.
As such, it believes in the idea that non-Jewish citizens have a right and duty to engage in Israeli politics and has largely focused on socio-economic issues.
Nevertheless, this modus operandi implicitly legitimises Israel’s existence in what many Palestinians consider historic Palestine, with some criticising the party for not only taking part in the elections but also in the ruling coalition.
“To be able to understand this topic, you must consider the nation-state law,” George Zeidan, a Palestinian activist from Beit Jala, told The New Arab, referring to the bill approved in 2018 that declares that the right to national self-determination in Israel is unique only to the Jewish people.
“The Israeli parliament represents a Zionist supremacist ideology, and the idea that having Arab members of Knesset is going to solve [problems in] daily Arab life is false,” Zeidan, who co-founded the ‘Right to Movement Palestine’, a non-profit group using sports to highlight the basic human right to the freedom of movement, added.
According to rights groups Adalah there are at least 65 laws that directly discriminate against Palestinian citizens - who lived under Israeli martial law until 1966 - impacting everything from land and housing rights to education and cultural expression.
Long considered second class citizens, there is systematic discrimination in budget allocation. In 2013, for example, the Jerusalem municipality allocated 10.1% to Palestinian neighbourhoods despite forming up to 40% of the population.
Around 45.3% of Palestinian families live below the poverty line, compared to 13.4 of Jewish families.
As far as Ra’am is concerned, Zeidan thinks that “the presence of an Arab party in the government supports Israeli propaganda about ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’”.
"The Israeli parliament represents a Zionist supremacist ideology, and the idea that having Arab members of Knesset is going to solve [problems in] daily Arab life is false"
Furthermore, Ra’am’s leader, Mansour Abbas, is a noted social conservative and has long opposed pro-LGBT legislation. In 2020 he opposed a bill in the Knesset banning gay conversion therapy, calling it a "crime against religion and society".
“He is a religious extremist who smeared LGBT discourse to develop a fan base for himself,” Zeiden says, claiming that Abbas wanted to remove Netanyahu from government for being a racist while promoting a different form of discrimination.
“The good thing about the new government is that the international community can no longer single out ‘right-wing parties’ while criticising Israeli occupation, because the new government will continue oppressing Palestinians, but while representing all of Israel’s political spectrum,” the activist said.
Mohamad, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship from Kafr Qasim, is in favour of the active participation of Palestinians in the political life of Israel.
“I usually take part in the parliamentary elections because I believe there must be representation for the Palestinian Arab minority inside Israel”, he told TNA. “On the other hand, opposition parties have convincing reasons for not participating in the Israeli parliament, including the failure to achieve real gains”.
Mohammad doesn’t oppose the idea of a Palestinian party joining the Israeli government as long as their principles are not compromised.
“Especially the principle of defining the Palestinian minority in Israel as a group that belongs to the Palestinian people and believes in the right of the Palestinian people to live on their land with the return of refugees, the removal of borders, and the establishment of a bi-national state that guarantees the rights of Arab and Jewish citizens without discrimination”.
But Ra'am has been criticised by some for not emphasising Palestinian identity or more urgently stressing the need to end Israel's occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
"The feeling is that they are the first ones to have abandoned the issue of the occupation"
“The Palestinian minority in Israel has familial and cultural ties, customs and traditions that bind them with the Palestinian people: it is impossible to separate the Palestinian issue from the Palestinian minority in Israel and Ra’am’s entry into the government represents the abandonment of the most important principle of the Arab minority in Israel, and it contradicts the definition of the Palestinian minority”.
It is a feeling shared by many Palestinians, who say that entering an Israeli government without asking other coalition partners to recognise the basic issue of equality between Palestinians and Jews is a grave failure.
But what does Ra’am hope to achieve? "The feeling is that they are the first ones to have abandoned the issue of the occupation," Giuseppe Dentice told TNA.
The analyst, Head of the MENA Desk at the International Studies Centre in Rome, explained that before talks to enter the government Ra’am “had already tried to weave relations with Bibi Netanyahu, with no remarkable differences from the ongoing problems with the current government”.
“We do not know, and we will probably understand it better in the coming weeks, but it is evident that Ra'am hasn’t protested at all against any proposal of the current government, even those which are openly anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian, and this is strange. Is it possible that everything is fine for them? I do not believe it,” Dentice explained.
“In my opinion, they are aiming for a broader political operation aimed at emptying the other non-Jewish parties and establishing themselves as the only subjects of the Arab minority in Israel”.
According to Israeli media, Abbas has asked for the presidency of the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee in the Knesset, which deals with issues such as local government, town planning and the Palestinian minority.
Ra’am itself also said that it had struck an agreement to join the government which would include an additional $16 billion to improve infrastructure and tackle crime in Palestinian towns. It would also include provisions to grant official status to Bedouin towns in the Negev desert, a key base for the party, and freeze demolition orders of homes built without permits.
“The narrow (electoral) numbers are a double-edged sword for everyone, they are a kind of ‘blackmail’ for every political force,” Dentice said.
Israel swore in the new government on 13 June, ending the 12-year rule of Netanyahu and making Bennett the new leader. It is difficult to know what role the Ra'am party will play, with critics having labelled Abbas as a victim of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ for siding with the Israeli state.
It seems clear, however, that Ra'am's entry into the government has so far caused more disappointment than hope for Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Francesco Petronella is a journalist and geopolitical analyst at the Treccani Institute, with a focus on foreign policy and the MENA region.
Follow him on Twitter: @petro_francesco