Israeli politics might just break one of its greatest taboos

There's a new kingmaker in Israel — and he's an Arab

Mansour Abbas.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

A year and a half ago, after Israel's election yielded a stalemate, it looked like the real winner of the election was neither Likud nor the opposition alliance, but the Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel Our Home") party, headed by former Netanyahu protege Avigdor Lieberman. It was he who had forced the election, his party that gained seats, and his party that offered the only plausible path forward via a national unity government brokered by him.

Such a government didn't come to pass, and Israel has been unable to break the stalemate created by Netanyahu's divisive leadership since. Now, two elections later, a new kingmaker has arisen in Israel — and he is unlike any the country has seen before.

The kingmaker is Mansour Abbas of the Islamist Arab Ra'am party. Prior to last week's elections, Ra'am was part of the Joint List with other Arab-oriented parties, but he split with the rest of the list before the election, declaring that he was pragmatically willing to join any government that would invite him to do so — including one led by Netanyahu — in order to deliver for his voters.

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That split was a potential windfall for the Israeli right (and was likely encouraged for that reason), since Ra'am might well have failed to meet the minimum vote threshold for inclusion in the Knesset. That would have meant votes for Ra'am were "wasted" and their seats would be allocated to the other parties, which is what appeared to have happened based on the exit polls released on the evening of the election, when it looked like Netanyahu's Likud and a coalition of allied right-wing parties had won a wafer-thin majority.

Instead, Ra'am won representation — and with it, the ability to prevent either Netanyahu or the opposition from forming a government without him.

The math is straightforward if complex due to the sheer number of parties in play. Netanyahu's core coalition — Likud, the largest party with 30 seats, plus the ultra-Orthodox parties, plus the extreme-right Religious Zionists — won 52 seats. Add another right-wing religious party, Yamina ("Right") headed by former Netanyahu protege Naftali Bennett, that has expressed willingness to sit either in a Netanyahu-led government or an opposition coalition, and you have 59 seats — just two seats shy of a majority. But after that, Bibi has no obvious coalition partners. Two other right-wing parties have refused to join a Netanyahu-led government: Yisrael Beiteinu, and New Hope, headed by Gideon Saar, another Netanyahu protege who founded the party as a clone of Likud explicitly aimed at dethroning King Bibi. The Zionist parties to their left, led by the centrist liberal Yesh Atid ("There Is a Future") party with 17 seats, are firmly opposed to another Netanyahu government. That leaves only the Arab parties — and Ra'am is the only one that has expressed any willingness to sit in a Netanyahu-led government.

But the opposition cannot form a government without Arab support either. Between them, the Zionist opposition parties not committed to Netanyahu have only 58 seats — and that coalition already runs an absurd gamut from Meretz, a social-democratic secular party that favors withdrawal from the territories, on the left to Yamina, a party that favors annexation of the territories and deepening the Jewish identity of the state, on the right. Either the left-wing Arab-dominated Joint List, with six seats, or the conservative Islamist Ra'am party would be necessary additions to form a majority.

Could Ra'am actually be induced to join a coalition? Different aspects of Ra'am's ideology would make for odd fits with either coalition: Their support for a two-state solution, re-division of Jerusalem and Arab national rights within Israel would be opposed by the right, while their anti-feminism, anti-gay views, and general social conservatism would jar with the left. But Ra'am's leadership wouldn't expect either coalition to adopt their views wholesale. Their most important demands are more money for their communities: Closing the gaps in the Arab educational system, improved housing and roads, and developing industrial zones near Arab communities — all demands analogous to the ones that the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties routinely extract.

Nonetheless, the inclusion of a non-Jewish and non-Zionist party in any Israeli governing coalition would be a milestone. The prospect of breaking one of the greatest taboos in Israeli politics, and including an independent Arab party in the coalition is tantalizing — and it's a distinct irony that whether it is a Likud-led coalition or the opposition that makes the move, the decisive parties will be right-wing ones, since right-wing parties are essential to both coalitions. The Israeli right has vociferously called for bolstering the specifically Jewish and Zionist character of the state in recent years, but unless one or another faction among them proves willing to sit with a non-Zionist Arab party, Israel will be headed to a fifth election — a prospect nobody in any party can possibly relish.

Which is Netanyahu's core argument to his right-wing opponents to give up trying to dethrone him and resign themselves to his continued dominance of Israeli life, even while on trial for corruption. The one clear and decisive outcome of the latest election was the dominance of the right. Seventy-two out of 120 seats were won by explicitly right-wing parties. Were it not for Netanyahu's divisive leadership, any number of plausible right-dominated coalitions would be possible, and no minor sectarian or extremist party could hold the coalition hostage. It is thanks to Netanyahu that the dominant right is so badly split — but that's precisely what enables him to say to his opponents: If you don't join me, it'll be your fault that Ra'am enters the government. It might not be enough to win Gideon Saar over outright — but it might be enough to win a couple of defections from his party, and that's all Netanyahu needs to form a government, the most right-wing one in Israel's history.

In the end, I doubt that even the most pragmatic Arab leader could sit in coalition with someone who kept a portrait of Baruch Goldstein on his wall, so a right-wing coalition with the Islamist Ra'am is probably a fantasy. But Mansour Abbas is still the man of the hour — and a harbinger of the future. Not only the left, but even the center-right now understands that so long as the Arab bloc is deemed off-limits, Israel's politics will be held captive to ever more extreme right-wing Jewish elements.

If they want to change that dynamic, somebody is eventually going to have to break the taboo.

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