A Historic Moment for Israeli Arabs, but With a Question Mark

An Arab party’s decision to join a right-leaning Israeli government would be an important, if uncertain, step toward inclusion rather than perpetual opposition.

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JERUSALEM — The agreement on a coalition that would oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a dozen years in power and include an independent Arab party in the government for the first time blew up fault lines in Israeli politics and opened a potential new era.

If Parliament backs the eight-party coalition, it holds out the tantalizing possibility that Arab citizens of Israel, who account for about a fifth of the population, might play a more active role in politics, to unifying effect.

At the same time, the prospect of Naftali Bennett, a right-wing nationalist leader, becoming prime minister alarmed many Israeli Arabs.

“I have debated Bennett, and he says quite openly, ‘You are not my equal,'” said Diana Buttu, a prominent Palestinian lawyer based in Haifa. “Did I want Netanyahu out? Yes. To the extent of wanting Bennett as prime minister? No.”

The decision by a small Arab party known by its Hebrew acronym, Raam, to join the government so soon after last month’s violent clashes between Jewish and Arab mobs in Israel last month reflected a growing realization that the marginalization of Arab parties brings only paralysis and repetitive elections. It also suggested a desire among some Arab citizens of Israel to exert more political influence.

Fakhira Halloun, an expert in conflict resolution, said: “Usually the dominant discourse is one of perceiving Palestinians inside Israel as an internal enemy. We need to change this perception by not being always in the opposition.”

In joining the government, she suggested, Mansour Abbas, the leader of Raam, was declaring that he wanted to build the meaning of citizenship for Arabs by involving them in the political process, even if some right-wing parties in the coalition “don’t even give us the legitimacy to say we are Palestinians and don’t give legitimacy to our history.”

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From left, Yair Lapid, Neftali Bennett and Mr. Abbas agreed to join forces on Wednesday.Credit…United Arab List, via Reuters

Mr. Netanyahu’s hold on Israeli society and the Israeli imagination has been such that his eventual departure inevitably seems synonymous with new possibility. Over the years he increasingly governed through manipulation of fear, in effect telling Israelis that survival without him was impossible.

The Arab citizens of Israel played a prominent role in this strategy. While sometimes courting them of late, Mr. Netanyahu often used their presence to generate fear among his base, famously warning in 2015 that Arabs were voting “in droves.” He fanned division wherever possible.

Such provocations, and the passing of a nation-state bill in 2018 that said the right to exercise self-determination was “unique to the Jewish people,” contributed to the anger evident in last month’s violent confrontations between Arabs and Jews. The immediate causes were a series of clumsy Israeli police actions during Ramadan, but Arab sentiment was already restive.

How Mr. Bennett would exercise power in a coalition with many members well to the left of him, including the chief architect of the agreement, Yair Lapid, remains unclear. A quest for survival, or even the lure of the history books, might incline him toward creative pragmatism rather than dogmatic nationalism and settlement expansion.

“I do not think that the two-state solution or reconciliation with the Palestinians will be achieved in the coming year or two,” said Jafar Farah, the director of the Mossawa Center, an advocacy group for Arab citizens of Israel. “But I do think that it is an opportunity for the Palestinian community in Israel to become a game changer.”

Certainly, Raam, with four seats in Parliament, will be critical to the survival of what would be a tenuous coalition, even if it will not hold any cabinet posts. The interests of the Palestinian minority will have to be considered by the coalition in a different way.

Practically, Mr. Abbas is likely to press for increased spending for Arab communities, who lag Israel’s Jewish population in the quality of schools, sports facilities and infrastructure. They also suffer from denial of access to land. Revocation of the so-called Kaminitz Law, which disproportionately penalizes unlicensed construction in Arab communities, has been discussed.

Bedouin Arabs welcomed an announcement by Raam that the emerging government, if backed by Parliament, would recognize three Bedouin villages in the Negev desert in its first 45 days in office and prepare a plan to deal with other unrecognized villages in its initial nine months in office.

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An unrecognized Bedouin settlement in the Negev.Credit…Hazem Bader/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The overarching question of a two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace will almost certainly not be affected by the eventual presence of an Arab party in government. Mr. Bennett has said he would never accept a Palestinian state.

Understand Developments in Israeli Politics

Key Figures. The main players in the latest twist in Israeli politics have very different agendas, but one common goal. Naftali Bennett, who leads a small right-wing party, and Yair Lapid, the centrist leader of the Israeli opposition, have joined forces to form a diverse coalition to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.Range of Ideals. Spanning Israel’s fractious political spectrum from left to right, and relying on the support of a small Arab, Islamist party, the coalition, dubbed the “change government” by supporters, will likely mark a profound shift for Israel.A Common Goal. After grinding deadlock that led to four inconclusive elections in two years, and an even longer period of polarizing politics and government paralysis, the architects of the coalition have pledged to get Israel back on track.An Unclear Future. Parliament still has to ratify the fragile agreement in a confidence vote in the coming days. But even if it does, it remains unclear how much change the “change government” could bring to Israel because some of the parties involved have little in common besides animosity for Mr. Netanyahu.

But Mr. Lapid, who would be foreign minister, has more moderate views, and Mr. Netanyahu’s departure could mark the end of a long period during which Israel’s consistent purpose was to make Palestinian statehood less likely or even feasible.

Ms. Buttu, the Palestinian lawyer, was doubtful that Mr. Abbas could achieve much of significance by entering the government: “He has done this to make his mark, but he will not get anything. He is effectively backing a government led by an ultranationalist who wants to expand settlements.”

Certainly, the experience of recent years has been progressive Palestinian marginalization. That could well continue under a Bennett government. But the 11 days of violence in May demonstrated that Israel is always less stable than it seems as long as its fundamental conflict festers.

Commenting in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, the journalist Merav Batito wrote: “Abbas’s signature is much more than a formal token of agreement. It symbolizes the possibility of a return to normalcy of Israeli society.” She added, “The first concrete wall built between Arabs and Jews by the Parliament, deep in Israeli society, has been breached.”

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