Al-Jazeera / June 5, 2021
Palestinian activists say decision by the leader of the United Arab List party displays a ‘fundamental misunderstanding’ of Israeli politics.
The United Arab List (UAL) is set to become the first party of Palestinian citizens of Israel to take part in a governing coalition after it agreed to join the new Israeli government to be led by Naftali Bennett – a former ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who had called for the annexation of the occupied West Bank.
Mansour Abbas, leader of the UAL, set aside his differences with Bennett, the 49-year-old former head of a settler organization, and centrist leader Yair Lapid to sign up to a coalition of eight parties from across the political spectrum aimed at ending Netanyahu’s 12 years in power.
Abbas, 47, who also serves as deputy chairman of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel – which in 1995 split from the now-outlawed northern branch of the Islamic Movement led by Sheikh Raed Salah – says the move will help him improve the lives of Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up about 20 percent of the approximately nine million citizens.
But many Palestinians are fiercely critical of his decision.
The coalition agreement came after an election on March 23 in which an alliance led by Netanyahu’s Likud party emerged as the largest party in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, but fell short of the majority of 61 seats required to form a government. It was Israel’s fourth national ballot in two years.
Bennett, who served as defence minister under Netanyahu, justified joining hands with Lapid’s Yesh Atid party to avoid yet another election.
With 17 seats, the Yesh Atid party is the second-largest party in the 120-member Knesset, while Bennett’s Yamina party has six seats.
Bennett and Lapid will take turns as prime minister, with Bennett taking the first period of two years.
Representation of Palestinian parties
Abbas’s UAL broke away from the Joint Arab List, the main coalition of Palestinian parties in Israel, ahead of the March elections. Abbas decided to run independently, advocating at the time that he would work with Netanyahu and other right-wing parties to improve living conditions for Palestinian citizens of Israel.
The split weakened the representation of Palestinian parties in the Knesset, which in last year’s vote won a record 15 seats in parliament.
The UAL, with four parliamentary seats, joined Bennett and Lapid’s coalition to unseat Netanyahu just ahead of a deadline imposed on Wednesday, and said it had secured an agreement to allocate another 53 billion shekels ($16bn) to improve infrastructure and fight crime in Palestinian-majority towns in Israel.
The UAL also announced it had been guaranteed the new government would stop the demolition of Palestinian homes built without a permit in Israel and that it would officially recognize Bedouin towns in the Negev desert – a stronghold for Abbas’s party.
“We decided to join the government in order to change the balance of political forces in the country,” Abbas said in a message to supporters after signing the coalition agreement.
But Diana Buttu, a Palestinian political analyst and lawyer, told Al-Jazeera that Abbas had “made the big mistake of thinking he could be an Israeli kingmaker”.
“He helped the coalition by cobbling it together, but as Palestinians, it is not our role to be kingmaker. We are in opposition to this system. Our role is to protect our community,” she said.
Buttu said Abbas and his party “will gain nothing” as a small part of a wide, unwieldy coalition.
“The idea that somehow Abbas is going to be able to muster up enough support to even introduce legislation that is going to counter some of the racist legislation that Palestinians face is a joke,” she said.
“It’s laughable, very naïve and displays a fundamental misunderstanding of Israeli politics and Zionism.”
Jafar Farah, director of the Mossawa Center, which advocates for Palestinians in Israel, told Al-Jazeera there was potential for some social and economic gains to be made by the Palestinian community in Israel on issues such as housing and crime.
“But then again, Netanyahu’s government was willing to grant Arab communities some of these demands. So it’s not a new thing,” he said.
But Farah said Abbas’s decision to focus on such demands, rather than addressing the Israeli occupation and systematic oppression, shows “a lack of vision among the Palestinian leadership”.
He warned that, regardless of what was promised to Abbas, this is likely to be a transitional government that could be replaced by a more right-wing administration once Netanyahu is out of the picture.
“And during that time, there will be no peace process nor reconciliation between Palestinians and Jews,” he said. “And no serious changes to the legal status of the Palestinian community.”
‘A direct force’
But according to Ibrahim Hijazi, secretary-general of the UAL, the party’s decision to join the coalition government relates to “achieving existential goals” for the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Listing issues such as housing, violence and crime, and unrecognized villages in the Negev desert, he said that joining the coalition aims to address such pressing matters and to “strengthen the role of Arab factions by making them a direct and essential force in politics”.
“This will benefit the Palestinian community and allow it to access its rights which were denied to it due to previous racist policies, and Palestinian parties remaining outside of the circles of influence,” said Hijazi.
“Our entry into negotiations was based on political promises, including pledges by the government to change policies that discriminate against us and a pledge of commitment to reaching a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue,” he told Al Jazeera.
Some Palestinians say the recent 11-day Israeli assault on Gaza which left at least 253 people dead, including 66 children, and more than 1,900 wounded, has further exacerbated feelings among many Palestinians that Abbas is wrong to join a government that will continue to impose military occupation on the Palestinian people and a blockade on the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli onslaught left nearly 17,000 residential and commercial units damaged or destroyed, according to the UN’s office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The fighting came after weeks of growing tensions as Israeli security forces cracked down on peaceful protests against the forced expulsion of Palestinian families in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan.
Israeli police forces also stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque compound several times during the final days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, using rubber bullets and tear gas against worshippers.
“With the attacks on Sheikh Jarrah and on Gaza, and the political upheaval they caused, Palestinian people have specifically told Abbas that he is no longer welcome among them in places like Sheikh Jarrah,” said Buttu.
“People have been coming out very strongly; half condemning him for taking this unnecessary step and half pitying him because he forced himself between a rock and a hard place to stay relevant in politics.”
Sami Abou Shehadeh, leader of the Palestinian nationalist Balad Party, said that Abbas has alienated himself from many Palestinians by joining the coalition.
“Abbas’s decision to be part of an extreme government, that will work against the interests of the Palestinians inside Israel and in occupied areas, is a very dangerous one,” he told Al-Jazeera.
“Imagine being the head of a Palestinian party and not being able to visit Al-Aqsa Mosque or join a funeral procession in Umm al-Fahm because the people would kick you out,” said Abou Shehadeh.
“Mansour has become an outcast.”
Arwa Ibrahim is a journalist specializing in the Middle East and North Africa