Israel’s Islamists Side with Netanyahu

The prime minister is the main beneficiary of the fracturing of the Joint List.

Joshua Leifer
February 16, 2021
Members of the Joint List Osama Saadi, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas in 2019. Photo: Menahem Kahana/Pool via AP

BY THE SUMMER OF 2020, it seemed all but certain that the Joint List, the coalition of Arab-led parties in Israel’s Knesset, was headed toward a split. In July, a vote on whether to send a bill to ban LGBT “conversion therapy” to a parliamentary committee found the Joint List’s constituent parties at odds, with the secularist and socialist members of Hadash in favor, and the members of the Islamist party Ra’am opposed. 

The issue of LGBT rights had emerged as a flashpoint within the Palestinian public in Israel during the weeks leading up to the vote. After it came to light that Julia Zaher, owner of the popular Al Arz tahini company, had donated to Israel’s flagship LGBT rights organization, Agudah, consumers threatened a boycott, and supermarkets removed Al Arz tahini from their shelves. This, too, exposed division among the Joint List’s members of Knesset (MKs). Hadash MK Aida Touma-Sliman, a feminist activist and journalist, affirmed that “LGBT rights are human rights” and called on people to buy Al Arz tahini, while Ayman Odeh, Hadash MK and Joint List chairman, said it was “hypocrisy” to boycott Al Arz but not tahini companies that support the IDF and Israel’s occupation. Their Islamist colleagues took a different view: Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas accused Odeh of offending the majority of Arab society, and Ra’am MK Walid Taha maintained that homosexuality contravened Arab religious, cultural, and ethical mores. “It is not legitimate,” Taha said. “Those who have such tendencies should seek treatment.”

Yet the issue of LGBT rights was only the most visible symptom of deeper dissension within the Joint List. For months, the Islamist Abbas, a mild-mannered dentist from the upper Galilee, had been signaling his desire to break with his Joint List colleagues and join the next governing coalition—even one led by Benjamin Netanyahu. By the fall, Abbas had publicly embraced the prime minister and expressed openness to helping Netanyahu avoid prosecution for corruption. During a convivial interview with Israel’s Channel 20—roughly the country’s equivalent of Fox News—Abbas claimed that his decision to side with Netanyahu was a pragmatic one. “Is there another prime minister?” he asked jokingly. “In Israel,” he added, “it is the right that lends political legitimacy, not the left.” 

When Abbas pulled his party out of the Joint List in late January, he blamed the coalition’s breakup on disagreements with his erstwhile partners, and on their unwillingness to seek influence in government. “We asked that our principled position as an Islamist movement be respected . . . our requests were rejected with no explanation,” he told Israel’s News 13, alluding to the clash over LGBT rights. He had also reportedly asked that Ra’am be allowed to carry out the next round of post-election coalition negotiations independent of the other Joint List parties and, in the event of another Netanyahu victory, to join a government under his leadership. The other parties’ refusal to permit this, Abbas said, was proof that “they want to remain on the sidelines of the political playing field.” 

Underlying the Joint List’s split, then, is not just a dispute over LGBT rights in Arab society, or even over social liberalism, but a much broader disagreement about what political participation by Palestinian citizens of Israel should look like in a period marked by right-wing Zionist hegemony and the fragmentation of the Palestinian national movement. For decades, the Arab-led parties have opted to remain in the parliamentary opposition—part of a principled anti-Zionist stance. But polls tend to show strong support among Arab voters for greater political involvement, including participation in governing coalitions. Now, Mansour Abbas and Ra’am have proposed a different paradigm—a less ideological, more instrumental one. Consciously taking the Haredi parties, with whom Ra’am shares a religiously conservative orientation, as an example, Abbas is arguing that his party can sit in a coalition without endorsing all of its policies, let alone recognizing the Zionist state. The benefits he hopes to reap include investment in Arab municipalities, funding to improve housing and reduce gun violence, even chairmanships of parliamentary communities.

So far, Palestinian voters seem unconvinced. Ra’am is currently polling poorly on its own, and most surveys show the party failing to garner enough support to enter the Knesset. “Palestinian people want unity,” said Rami Younis, a Palestinian writer based in Haifa and a former parliamentary consultant. “People are saying that supporting Netanyahu is like being a collaborator.” Younis predicts that Palestinian citizens of Israel will punish Abbas and Ra’am at the ballot box. “What [Abbas] calls being pragmatic is a cover for lacking ideology and vision,” he said. “He uses that term as a guise to get a few million shekels to pave some streets.”

Abbas has claimed to understand the costs and benefits inherent in allying with Netanyahu—“Netanyahu is trying to exploit me, but I am also trying to exploit him,” he has said. But his machinations seem set to deliver disproportionate benefits for the prime minister. A fully united Joint List constituted a check on Netanyahu’s power: As the Knesset’s third-largest party, it was instrumental in blocking Netanyahu from forming a right-wing majority government that would have granted him immunity from his corruption charges. Now, whether or not Ra’am succeeds in entering the Knesset, the opposition to Netanyahu is greatly diminished; if Ra’am does win enough seats, Netanyahu will have another source of support in his efforts to avoid prosecution. “Either way,” Younis said, “Netanyahu is the big winner.” 

THE JOINT LIST was the product of necessity. In 2013, the vociferously anti-Arab MK Avigdor Liberman, then minister of foreign affairs, led the passage of a bill that increased the number of votes needed by a party to enter the Knesset. Liberman and Netanyahu claimed the bill’s intent was to stabilize Israel’s parliamentary system by making it harder for small parties to win seats. But the bill clearly targeted the four major Arab parties, which found themselves below the threshold of electoral viability. To avoid total exclusion from parliamentary politics, the Arab-led parties formed a coalition that would run as a single parliamentary list in Knesset elections.

It was an uneasy alliance from the beginning. The Joint List’s constituent parties span the political spectrum: the communist-led Hadash, the Arab nationalist Balad, the more moderate nationalist Ta’al, and, until last month, the Islamist Ra’am. In addition to ideological differences, squabbles over power and representation within the coalition plagued the Joint List. In the April 2019 elections—the first of what is now four trips to the ballot box in the span of two years—the Joint List split into two blocs, largely over disagreements about power-sharing; Hadash and Ta’al ran as one list, while Balad and Ra’am became another. Yet Arab voters preferred the show of unity that was the Joint List. When the parties ran separately in April 2019, they garnered only ten seats total in the Knesset; when they ran together in March 2020, they garnered 15, making them the third-largest contingent in the Knesset. 

With the stronger electoral showing came a new expectation that the Joint List would seek greater power in parliament. If older Arab voters were more inclined to be satisfied with an increased presence in government, younger voters want their representatives in the Knesset to achieve substantive results, explained Thair Abu-Rass, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and PhD student at the University of Maryland. “They want influence,” he said. Over the last several years, the Joint List leaders have tried to respect this desire without softening their opposition to the exclusionary nature of the Israeli state. “They crossed what were once considered by Palestinian politicians to be red-lines in Israeli-Zionist politics,” wrote Samah Salaime, a feminist activist and political blogger for +972 Magazine. “They’ve cooperated [with Zionist parties] on votes, participated in parliamentary committees that are not solely related to Arab society, and they’ve sent the message that they’re interested in fully ‘integrating’ into Israeli politics.” 

There exists little precedent to suggest what that integration should look like. For most of Israel’s history, the Arab-led parties were effectively excluded from coalition politics. It was only in 1992 that Yitzhak Rabin broke that decades-old norm, forming a minority government that depended on support from Arab-led parties outside of the governing coalition. Rabin committed to pursuing peace negotiations with the Palestinians and addressing anti-Arab discrimination in Israel; in exchange, the Arab-led parties Hadash and Mada blocked the right from dissolving his government through a vote of no confidence. Ever since, the Arab-led parties have looked to the parties of the Zionist left as tentative political partners. But after Rabin’s assassination, his successors in the Labor Party proved much less willing to make such overtures. And for the Arab-led parties, such alliances lost their instrumental value as the Labor Zionists grew less capable of winning elections. Both Labor and Meretz now hover just barely above the electoral threshold.

As Likud eclipsed Labor as the country’s dominant party in the 2010s, the political climate became increasingly inhospitable to Arab–Jewish political cooperation. Throughout the Netanyahu era, even Netanyahu’s challengers—Yair Lapid in 2013, Isaac Herzog in 2015, Benny Gantz in 2020—all averred never to form a coalition with the Arab-led parties. Meanwhile, the Arab-led parties, particularly Balad, have also been reluctant to find common cause with their Zionist counterparts. This changed in the fall of 2019, when the depredations of the Netanyahu years, combined with the Joint List’s newfound electoral heft, led Ayman Odeh to back Benny Gantz’s bid for prime minister—the first time the Arab-led parties had supported a candidate for Israel’s highest office since 1992. “This will be the most significant step toward helping create the majority needed to prevent another term for Mr. Netanyahu,” Odeh wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times. “And it should be the end of his political career.”

Gantz, however, could not muster the votes to defeat Netanyahu. Worse, last March, Gantz flirted with forming a minority government that would have relied on the Joint List’s support, only to join an “emergency” national unity government led by Netanyahu as the Covid-19 crisis engulfed the country. For many Arab voters, this was a “middle finger,” Abu Rass said. “The Joint List promised that they would remove Netanyahu,” Salaime told me. Instead, Netanyahu emerged with yet another term. 

The failure to deliver on high expectations set the stage for the Joint List’s dissolution in January. Nearly a year after winning an unprecedented mandate of 15 seats, they remained relegated to the opposition, with little to show for their electoral success. Infighting between the Joint List’s constituent parties increased. A sense of disappointment pervaded the Arab electorate, just as yet another election appeared on the horizon. “A lot of voters are extremely mad,” Younis said. The debacle with Gantz seemed like proof that Palestinian citizens “would never be considered full political partners.” The party leaders worried that voters would punish the Joint List by refusing to show up at the polls.

It was this fear, combined with the belief that Palestinain voters were looking for something different, that prompted Abbas to seek a new political alignment for Ra’am. In an interview, he seemed to suggest that if the Joint List had been willing to cultivate power by endorsing Gantz, a former IDF general who boasted during the campaign of “bombing Gaza back to the stone age,” it should not be taboo to work with the prime minister under whose leadership Gantz had served. In October, in a signal of his party’s shifting allegiances, Abbas helped Likud apparatchiks in the Knesset head off a vote to create a committee to investigate whether Netanyahu had personally profited from a set of deals between the Israeli Navy and the German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp. In November, Abbas said he did not rule out supporting a law that would grant Netanyahu immunity from the multiple criminal indictments he is facing. Israeli pundits have speculated about whether the two have already made a deal, though Abbas denies this. 

“I am bringing a new pragmatic style to the political scene that balances values and first principles with the capacity to influence,” Abbas wrote on Facebook in response to criticism. “I have not inherited the sacred division of left and right, as if we’re in the pocket of what’s called the ‘Zionist left.’” What Abbas was saying, Salaime explained, was that “if Israel is an extreme right-wing society, then we’ll have to find some way in.” 

IN LEAVING THE JOINT LIST, Ra’am is gambling on finding sufficient support among socially conservative Arab voters who are also willing to accept Netanyahu as prime minister. There is little evidence, though, that they constitute a sizable demographic. For most Palestinian citizens of Israel, Abbas’s open embrace of Netanyahu “was too much,” Salaime said. While Abbas is not wrong that the Arab parties need to find a way to wield influence within the Israeli political system, she said, “this is not the pragmatism we signed up for.”

Whether or not Abbas’s gambit succeeds, it has already reshaped Arab politics in Israel. By running on an explicitly religious and socially conservative platform, Ra’am has perhaps inadvertently aided the efforts of the increasingly visible Palestinian LGBT rights movement by driving a more open debate. “As a feminist,” Salaime told me, “it’s a good thing that the LGBT issue is on the table.” The risk is that, with Ra’am’s campaign sputtering, the party will attempt to lure voters by adopting a more vociferously homophobic line. Younis told me that Palestinian citizens of Israel have begun to receive anti-LGBT campaign text messages accusing Hadash and the Joint List of opposing Muslim tradition. “These are tactics that resemble the Likud’s,” he said. 

With the Palestinian public so clearly divided, the Zionist parties have sensed an opportunity to make inroads into the Arab electorate. Meretz and Labor have increased the number of Arab representatives on their parliamentary lists in the hopes of bolstering their chances. Even Netanyahu’s Likud has launched an Arabic-language social media campaign and sent the prime minister on a tour of Arab-majority cities and towns. “Everyone,” said Abu Rass, “is courting the Arabs now.”

Viewed within the wider context of the one-state reality in Israel/Palestine, the collapse of the Joint List reflects a crisis in the Palestinian national movement. In addition to advocating for full rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, the Arab-led parties in the Knesset have historically advocated for an end to the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state. But if, with the eclipse of a two-state solution, the Palestinian national movement “doesn’t know where its heading, then how is the Joint List to know what their contribution is?” as +972 Magazine editor Amjad Iraqi asked on a recent podcast episode. “Until the Palestinian political scene is able to regather itself,” he added, “power and politics in Israel/Palestine is going to be dictated almost exclusively by the Jewish-Israeli political spectrum, and in particular by the Israeli right.” It is the Israeli right, therefore, that also stands to gain from the circumscribed sense of possibility in Palestinian politics. If Netanyahu wins yet another term as prime minister, he will partly have the Islamists of Ra’am to thank.

Joshua Leifer is a Jewish Currents contributing editor and a member of the Dissent editorial board. His essays and reporting have also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Jacobin, +972 Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about American Jewish identity. He lives in New Haven, CT, where he is a history PhD student.