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With Netanyahu's fate on the line, Arab party could hold keys to Israel's next government

“To put an Islamic party together with the two ultra-religious Jewish parties, this is going to be a Passover miracle,” one political analyst said of Netanyahu's hopes of forming a coalition.
Image: Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, at the party campaign headquarters in Jerusalem early Wednesday. Emmanuel Dunand / AFP - Getty Images

As Israel emerged from its fourth election in two years with the country's persistent political deadlock seemingly unbroken, an unlikely figure emerged as a potential kingmaker in the Jewish state: an Arab Islamist politician and former dentist.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies fell short of winning a parliamentary majority that would keep Netanyahu in power, according to a final vote count released Thursday.

The anti-Netanyahu camp also does not have a collective majority and is made up of a broad spectrum of parties seemingly united only in their desire to oust Israel’s longest-serving premier.

Netanyahu and his allies won 52 seats in the 120-seat parliament known as the Knesset, while his opponents captured 57.

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For either camp to cobble together the 61 seats needed to form a majority coalition government, they will likely need the support of the United Arab List, a small Islamist party that won four seats in this week's election. This has thrust Mansour Abbas, its leader, into the spotlight as a figure who could theoretically hold the keys to power.

No Arab party has ever served in an Israeli government, and the chances it will happen now still look slim despite the stakes.

Reuven Hazan, a professor in the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says Netanyahu could muster a mathematical majority, but that putting ultra-Orthodox and far-right lawmakers with an Arab Islamist party just didn’t work ideologically.

“To put an Islamic party together with the two ultra-religious Jewish parties, this is going to be a Passover miracle,” he said, as Israel prepared to celebrate the holiday this weekend.

“Ideologically, I think you’re stretching the envelope much, much too far,” he added.

Image: Mansour Abbas
Mansour Abbas, leader of the United Arab List, votes at a polling station in the northern village of Maghar on Tuesday.Ahmad Gharabli / AFP - Getty Images

Abbas hails from the Islamic Movement in Israel, inspired by the regionwide Muslim Brotherhood movement. In 1996 the movement split in part due to a disagreement over whether it should participate in Israeli politics.

One branch, led by a cleric currently in jail for inciting terrorism, has boycotted Israeli politics. A second branch, to which Abbas belongs, has adopted a more conciliatory stance.

The United Arab List, also referred to by its Hebrew name Raam, draws support from religiously conservative elements of Israel’s 2 million-strong Arab minority, around 20 percent of the country's 9.2 million population.

They are Israeli citizens and increasingly present in professional jobs from medicine to micro-finance. However, they also face discrimination on issues like housing and budget allocation, according to Adalah, a human rights organization and legal center.

For Netanyahu, approaching Abbas would require him to seek support from a population he has previously vilified.

In 2015 Netanyahu warned his right-wing base that Arabs were flocking to the polls “in droves.” In 2019 he posted almost hourly updates on Facebook calling on supporters to counter what he portrayed as a dangerously high turnout among Arab voters.

Before Tuesday's election, however, Netanyahu attempted to court the Arab vote as he sought re-election.

Abbas has suggested he is open to negotiating with either the pro or anti-Netanyahu groups.

“For us, whomever wants to come in contact with us, we will be happy to hold talks with him and raise our positions and demands,” he said Wednesday in an interview with the Israeli news site Ynet.

However, it was far from clear whether Netanyahu would be able to convince any of his right-wing allies to agree to serve alongside an Arab Islamist party.

“A right-wing government will not be formed based on Mansour Abbas’s United Arab List. Period,” Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of an alliance of far-right parties known as the Religious Zionist Party, said on social media Thursday.

The Religious Zionist Party includes a new incarnation of the Kahanist movement, inspired by an American-born Rabbi who advocated a Jewish theocracy and the forced removal of Palestinians.

Even with Abbas, Netanyahu would likely also need to secure the support of former aide turned critic Naftali Bennett.

Bennett, a hard-line nationalist, has also not committed to either camp. The Associated Press, however, reported that he has ruled out an alliance with Abbas. A spokesperson for Bennett did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While Netanyahu's political future hangs in the balance once again, he is still under indictment on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. He denies all wrongdoing. The court case looms large over the political horse-trading, with many opponents saying he should not be running the country while on trial.

It’s not just elements of the Israeli right-wing that have rejected working with Arab parties to break the interminable electoral deadlock, however.

Before last year’s election, centrist Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said he would not include the Joint List — an alliance of Arab parties that then included Raam — in his government, citing disagreements with its leadership over national and security issues.

“They constitute 21, 22 percent of the Israeli population,” said Mansour Nasasra, a senior lecturer in Middle East politics and international relations at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, referring to the country's Arab citizens.

“This is a huge minority. They have a say on Israeli politics. They can’t ignore that forever,” he added.

Nasasra said he was skeptical Abbas would be the one to choose Israel’s next prime minister because of the disagreements on the Israeli right.

“Basically they have to rely on him. Otherwise there is no government,” he said, referring to Netanyahu and his allies.

“But it’s unlikely to happen. They will decide maybe to go to another election rather than rely on an Islamic party to form a government.”