Mansour Abbas won’t bring down the Israeli government – for his own sake

Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra'am party, leads a faction meeting in the Knesset (Olivier Fitoussi - Flash90)

Samah Salaime

+972 Magazine  /  April 19, 2022

The Ra’am leader froze his party’s membership in the government following the violent crackdown at Al-Aqsa. Here’s why quitting isn’t an option.

The decision by the Ra’am party to temporarily freeze — but not end — its membership in the Israeli government following the renewed violence at the Al-Aqsa compound last weekend is as bizarre as it is necessary. There is no Palestinian politician in Israel who would want to be in Abbas’ shoes at the moment. His party has been able to hold on for 10 months as a member of a weak and teetering coalition, and has sustained vicious attacks from both the opposition and the right-most factions of the government, primarily Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked.

Time after time, Ra’am held on, despite the criticisms leveled at it during the Citizenship Law saga, the attempts to pass a national budget, as well as over home demolitions, attacks on Bedouin in the Naqab/Negev, its position on LGBTQ rights — among other things. It lost MK Said al-Harumi, one of its most popular parliamentarians, after he died of a heart attack, as well as the trust of its voters after it has been unable to deal effectively with the violent crime that continues to plague Palestinian society in Israel.

Despite all of these crises, Ra’am was able to stand strong and promise its voters — and the Palestinian community writ large — that everything would be okay. But then Ramadan arrived.

It is hard to say that the leaders of the Islamic Movement were surprised by the timing of the holy month, during which Israel was supposed to boast before the Palestinians and the rest of the world about the unprecedented gestures taken in the name of the Muslim worshippers of the country, including allowing more laborers from Gaza into Israel and relaxing control of movement for those who wish to travel from the occupied West Bank into Jerusalem.

Abbas and co. could not have anticipated the four murderous attacks against Israeli citizens that took place this last month. Alongside the rest of the Palestinian MKs, including from the Joint List, he harshly condemned the killings. While the wave of attacks has calmed down, at least for now, Israeli military operations in the cities of the West Bank have grown more lethal from day to day. Thirteen Palestinians have been shot dead, including a 17-year-old boy and a 47-year-old widow and mother of six.

Ra’am sat in a government that committed war crimes against Palestinians, and its embarrassment grew and grew with every image of an arrested child or shaheed who was buried in Hebron or Bethlehem. But this Ramadan, all eyes are on Al-Aqsa Mosque — from the officers who beat young Palestinians and journalists at Damascus Gate, to the brazen and daily attacks on the Al-Aqsa compound over the weekend.

It is impossible to hide from these images: women beaten by baton-wielding police officers, old men shoved and injured by security forces, soldiers armed to the teeth breaking into the mosque and firing tear gas, attacking everything that moved and arresting hundreds. How could the same movement that gives alms to the poor in Jerusalem and organizes free summer camps in the mosque for children provide its support to a government that gave orders to break into the mosque with an iron fist one day, and the next day provided protection to dozens of settlers and far-right activists who went up to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif?

Meanwhile, social media is full of satirical videos of Abbas selling out Al-Aqsa to the settlers. For many, the blood of every Palestinian who dies in Jerusalem will be on Abbas and Ra’am’s hands.

The internal criticism happening in the Islamic movement, which proclaimed Al-Aqsa to be a “red line” that Israel cannot cross, has only grown over this past month, pushing Ra’am into a corner. It can no longer remain silent when Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh, an avowed secular socialist, stands on the steps of Damascus Gate and defends the holiness of Jerusalem, Balad chair Sami Abu Shehadeh runs from studio to studio to explain what the occupation does to Palestinians, and how all these various episodes of violence are the result of this occupation, and Ta’al Chairman Ahmad Tibi broadcasts live from the Russian Compound and announces that he will accompany the detained Palestinians until the end. In light of all this, what was left for Abbas and his party to do?

False promises and pipe dreams

On the other hand, it is clear that Abbas does not want to be the one responsible for bringing down the first Israeli government that accepted Palestinian citizens into its ranks, and is certainly not interested in being blamed — by both Israeli Jews and Palestinians — for Netanyahu’s return to the throne.

That is precisely why freezing his party’s membership is the acrobatic trick he was looking for: it is a display of protest against a government it props up, bereft of any real threat to bring it down.

It is as yet unclear how this pathetic attempt at protest was coordinated with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett — who allowed the police to run amok in Al-Aqsa — and his supposed successor, Yair Lapid.

For their part, Bennett and Lapid know that they need to help their beleaguered partner, at least until after Ramadan. It is likely that in the following days we will see a package of humanitarian gestures aimed at Palestinians — particularly in the run-up to Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holiday — that will allow them not only to pray in Jerusalem, but even dip their feet in the Mediterranean. Police presence in the Old City will likely decrease significantly, and the final prayers of the month could pass without new aggression toward Palestinians.

By now it should be clear to all: this government will not fall because of its Palestinian members. Recent experience teaches us that members of Bennett’s own party pose the biggest threat to the existence of the coalition. Ra’am will not be the ones to overthrow it — not because they are satisfied with the government, but because the party’s future depends on whether or not the Palestinian voter will decide, in the end, that the decision to enter the Bennett-Lapid government was a good one. The bet that Abbas took must bear fruit as quickly as possible, while he is still in the government, otherwise his party will have no right to exist.

It will be accused, again, of dismantling the Joint List for the sake of false promises and pipe dreams. It will be political suicide and the proof needed that the new and pragmatic path of the Islamic movement is doomed to fail, and that Mansour Abbas is not yet ready to accept.

Samah Salaime is a feminist Palestinian activist and writer