On July 27, Knesset member Aida Touma-Sliman of the Unified List (a unified list of predominantly Arab parties) was elected for the third time as head of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and gender equality.
On the same day, United Arab List lawmaker Saeed Alharomi (also known by his Hebrew acronym Ra’am) was appointed to head the Knesset’s Home Affairs Committee, but with reduced powers due to the decision to split the commission into three.
These two appointments reflect the differences between the two Arab parties in the Knesset – a difference that is deeply ingrained in the Arab political system in Israel. Touma-Sliman will head the committee dealing with an important cause – women’s rights – but will mainly limit himself to issuing declarative statements to promote these rights. Alharomi, on the other hand, will head a large committee with operational powers that deals with day-to-day grievances – including planning and construction plans as well as citizenship issues, rights with which Arab society in Israel frequently struggles.
This dramatic split between these two Arab parties is recent and has the potential to impact the Israeli political system as a whole.
Until recently, Arab parties in Israel were outside the cycle of decision-making and impact in Israel. They were not seen as legitimate partners in government. The only time they gained any influence was for a limited period with Yitzhak Rabin’s government following the Oslo peace accord in the 1990s.
In 2015 – and due to an amendment that raised the electoral threshold for parties to win Knesset seats from 2% to 3.25% – the country’s four Arab parties were forced to unite into one list edited by the charismatic Ayman Odeh. This list secured the unprecedented 13 seats in the Knesset and later 15 in the 2020 election, out of a total of 120 seats.
The substantial electoral success of 2015 put the Arab community into euphoria. They wanted to see a conversion of this result into involvement, impact and tangible results that would reflect positively on the disadvantaged Arab community. The leaders of the United Arab List have listened to the pulse of their constituencies and for the first time recommended that President Reuven Rivlin give the mandate to form a government to Netanyahu’s opponent, Blue and Blue party leader Benny Gantz. However, the latter defected, split his party and joined Netanyahu to form a government that lasted only nine months.
This caused great disappointment in the Arab community.
Around the last election in March 2021, Ra’am broke away from the joint list, decided to take the risk of not crossing the electoral threshold, and ran separately in the Knesset elections. Apparently, Netanyahu understood that his only way out of the deadlock in the political system was to legitimize one of the Arab parties to join his coalition after the election.
He has forged a special relationship with Mansour Abbas, the leader of Ra’am.
As a result, Ra’am has adopted a new stance reflected in his motto: we are neither left nor right wing, but will cooperate and collaborate with anyone who will provide answers to the needs of Arab communities.
Ra’am was ready to swallow frogs who were against Arab sentiment and with the sole aim of bringing about change to the burning issues of the Arab sector: infrastructure in Arab towns and villages, unemployment, building permits and illegal construction, and street crime.
The risk they take depends on the size of the frogs they are willing to swallow and how the Arab community as a whole views them in return for increased budgets and privileges. Will they support government resolutions further alienating Palestinians in Gaza or legislation strengthening LGBT rights, which Ra’am has already opposed?
In the March 2021 election, Ra’am won four seats in the Knesset. The split weakened the Joint List (which remained a coalition of the other three parties after Ra’am left) and their number of Knesset seats fell to just six.
Large sectors of the Arab community were eager to give the Ra’am experience a chance.
The Israel-Gaza war in late May 2021 was sparked by the dispute in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. The Palestinian sympathy and feelings aroused among Palestinian citizens of Israel during the war threatened to derail Ra’am’s plans and indicate that this approach cannot prevail in a country in conflict.
However, talks resumed after a ceasefire.
After tiring negotiations, Raam built on his modest success and joined the anti-Netanyahu government. The Joint List remained in opposition.
According to Zaher Elias, an electoral strategist, this pragmatic (or opportunistic, depending on how you perceive it) approach of Ra’am has gained popularity among large segments of the Arab community.
Joint List leaders Oudeh and Ahmad Tibi gave speeches and media interviews against Ra’am’s new stance; however, their success has been limited. The former claimed that Ra’am lowered the status of the Arab community from citizen to “subjects” who beg for rights just like a community of consumers. The second called them victims of Stockholm syndrome.
Elias said Ra’am’s plans to secure large budgets for the Arab community have a good chance of succeeding unless some major event disrupts them. This may include the dismantling of the government for whatever reason or due to a new wave of crime in Arab society or a new form of violence with Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank or even on the northern front with Lebanon. . He does not expect any other tangible achievements for the Arab sector apart from those related to money. The budget proposal approved by the government on August 2 supports Elias’s assessment, as it indicates that huge budgets have been allocated to the Arab sector.
If everything turns out by Ra’am’s calculations, then Elias expects Ra’am to win six to seven Knesset seats in the next election. Elias sees Tibi as a potential partner of Abbas but predicted big changes at Hadash (the left-wing party that runs the Joint List), including staff changes at the top. He does not expect any changes from Balad, which has established itself in its niche by opposing any such cooperation with the government.
If Ra’am’s experiment is successful, it could create a total earthquake in the Israeli political system, as for the first time Arab parties will become active players in the political game, shape-changing from within.