Ra’am: who are Israel’s first Arab party in government?

There are questions about how much the party can achieve as part of Israel's new coalition

The United Arab List made history in June by becoming the first Arab party to join the Israeli government.

The move has placed the small group – with only four members of the Knesset – under the microscope.

As part of a broad coalition alongside hardline pro-settler nationalists like Naftali Bennett and centrist two-state proponent like Yair Lapid, analysts have doubts about how effective the Islamist group, also known by the acronym Ra’am, will be in pushing for the needs of Arabs in Israel.

While the party was crucial in securing enough backing in the Knesset for the new government, Mansour Abbas, Ra’am leader, did not take a frontline role in the line-up, instead opting for the post of deputy minister of Arab affairs in the prime minister’s office.

But, who are the United Arab List and what are the consequences of their unlikely rise to power in Israel?

Who are the United Arab List?

The United Arab List is an Islamist political group that broke ties with the Joint Arab List in January – an umbrella group representing Israel's Arab minority that makes up just under 21 per cent of the population.

Ra'am seeks a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, and is ideologically aligned with Egypt's now banned Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas in Gaza.

The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change characterises the group as "ideologically Islamist and politically pragmatic," because, while it promotes adherence to Islam in public life and a "separatist Islamic identity" among Arab-Israelis, it differs from Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood by existing and operating under a non-Muslim society that adheres to Israeli law.

Palestinian journalist Rami Younis and the Middle East Institute's non-resident scholar Carol Daniel Kasbari, among others, called Ra'am and its leader Mansour Abbas "good Arabs", referring to Israel's perception of the ideal, obedient Arab citizen.

While their ability to affect change may be limited, Khaled Elgindy, the Middle East Institute's programme director on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs, says that Ra'am's participation in Israeli government alone will have an impact on the "psychology" of Israeli citizens and help to change the political fabric of the country.

"Not all Islamists are the same," said Mr Elgindy.

Ra'am is the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. It is considered less conservative than the northern branch, which was banned in Israel for its extremist ideology.

"Many of the far-right accuse Ra'am of being Hamas supporters because of their Islamism, and it is what you would expect from an Islamist party. But it is much more accommodating – and what some might call pragmatic – than their northern counterpart," Mr Elgindy said.

Perception of the group

Right-wing conservative commentator Jonathan Schanzer called the group's deal to become part of a government led by Mr Bennett the Arab world's "fifth normalisation agreement" with Israel.

"The thought is that they’re going to be well-behaved to earn their seat at the table but that they don’t really represent where the Arab-Israeli community is on the whole," Mr Elgindy said.

One major criticism of the group is that they do not emphasise the need to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

"They don't overtly stress the Palestinian identity. They do not talk very much about the occupation," he said.

With issues looming like the legal battle over the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where 12 Palestinian families could soon be evicted from their homes, Arabs in Israel will look to the United Arab List for a solid response.

Confrontations between Palestinian civilians and Israeli security forces in and around Al Aqsa mosque have also drawn international condemnation and will be a litmus test for the party.

"A very important test will be Al Aqsa and what happens if we see more provocation by extremists or authorities themselves," Mr Elgindy said. "Whether Ra'am is staunchly nationalist or not, Al Aqsa is a red line for everyone. So it will be very interesting to see how that plays out."

The first test for Mr Abbas was a contentious nationalist flag march through Jerusalem earlier in June that risked inflaming tensions and sparking another round of fighting with Hamas in Gaza. The UN and the US urged Israeli leaders to call off the march but it was given the green light.

On June 15, Mr Abbas said that it was an “unbridled provocation, which is based on shouts of hatred and incitement to violence, and an attempt to set the area on fire for political reasons.”

He added that, “The public security minister and the police should have cancelled it,” but otherwise took no other action.

Through its participation in government, Ra'am has already answered the question of whether Arab involvement in Israeli politics would even be possible.

"That too is how they are different from the northern branch: they are willing to co-operate within the framework of Israeli politics and acknowledge the legitimacy of the Israeli state," Mr Elgindy said.

How did an Islamist party find a home in the Israeli government?

The ruling coalition is made up of several parties that have left, centrist and right-wing leanings.

Although an outlier, Ra'am has found some common ground with socially-conservative ultra-Orthodox Jewish circles.

"For the socially-conservative, right-wing in Israel, [Mansour] Abbas represents a similar mindset, particularly in his religiously-based opposition to gay rights," said Ms Kasbari, the Middle East Institute non-resident scholar.

The question on everybody's mind is whether the coalition will last.

"If I had to bet, it would be a miracle if it lasted for two years when Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid rotate the premiership," Mr Elgindy said.

"Extremely ideologically and demographically diverse, it is hard to imagine the coalition governing effectively, particularly since there are so many issues that can bring it down."

Still, the attempts by the United Arab List to have a voice in Israeli politics could allow it to win concessions for Palestinians that would not have materialised otherwise, like halting the demolition of Arab towns in the Negev.

Although it remains unclear exactly what else is on Ra’am’s agenda, Mr Abbas has said there could be “many things in this agreement for the benefit of Arab society”.

Mr Elgindy believes the party might have justified their move in the same way Egyptian president Anwar Sadat did at Camp David in 1978, when he signed a peace agreement with Israel in exchange for Israeli troop withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula.

“There was a realisation that we love and care about Palestinian rights but our rights come first: to get back our land and national pride.”

"Nationalism doesn’t put food on the table and make our communities safe," Mr Elgindy said.

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