In May 2021, Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas was deep into talks with Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid about joining the “change bloc” seeking power, when Abbas cut off negotiations, in protest over rising Israeli-Palestinian violence.
At the time, barely a day passed before Abbas apparatchiks were leaking to Hebrew-language media their desire to restart the talks, and indeed, within days of violence subsiding, Ra’am made history as the first all-Arab party to join a ruling coalition.
Nearly a year later, unrest between Israelis and Palestinians is again, swelling and now, as then, Ra’am has made its displeasure known, this time “freezing” its participation in the no-longer nascent coalition.
But unlike a year ago, what is at stake this time isn’t only the future of the coalition, but also the political fortunes of Abbas himself and the Ra’am party. After months in which the party has been seen by some voters as little more than an ineffective fig leaf, many in Ra’am are asking whether they should ever go back to the coalition, or to Abbas.
At the same time, both Abbas and Ra’am are wary of bolstering the teetering coalition, which is actively sending police to stamp out riots on the Temple Mount; doing so will likely alienate Ra’am within Arab society and attenuate any political support it once had.
“Abbas wants to stay in the Knesset, but it’s going to be hard for him,” said political analyst Ehab Jabareen.
Abbas’s decision Sunday to temporarily remove his four-seat Islamist Ra’am party imperiled the already wobbly coalition, reducing its number from a 60-60 parity with the opposition to a 56-64 disadvantage.
His announcement followed several days of clashes between Palestinians, Jews, and Israeli police involving the Temple Mount that have left over 150 wounded. Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount, is known as Haram al-Sharif to Muslims, and is home to Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine.
Abbas has staked his political credibility on the premise that active participation in Israeli politics can bring tangible civilian wins to Arab society. But his inability to substantively deliver on that in the government’s first 10 months was thrown into stark relief by his continued participation in a government seen by at least some of his voters as attacking Jerusalem’s holy sites.
Ra’am and its voter base have swallowed ideological compromises like remaining in a government that supported the renewal of the controversial Citizenship Law – which bars some Palestinians who marry Israelis from obtaining permanent residency in Israel – but has not yet succeeded in recognizing unofficial Bedouin villages or stopping demolition of illegal, unpermitted homes in Arab communities, or significantly reducing crime in Arab towns.
“There are a lot of people who say that, even today, we haven’t gotten anything real out of it,” said Salih Ryan, a Ra’am politician who is mayor of the northern Israeli town of Kabul.
Rather than being a party built around a charismatic leader, Ra’am is the political party of the Southern Islamic Movement and its elites come from within that infrastructure.
Abbas, in addition to appealing to his political base, needs to maintain the trust of his party’s affiliated religious leadership.
“He needs [a win] to prove the justification of all this effort and the idea,” both to Ra’am’s voting base and its institutional elites, said Jabareen.
Jabareen noted that as tensions have risen in recent days, Ra’am leaders have begun to speak out against Abbas for the first time, reflecting the importance they place on the issue. The temporary retreat from coalition politics was announced following a meeting of the Southern Islamic Movement’s Shura council.
“Ra’am’s current mistakes are seen as Abbas’s mistakes, not the party’s mistakes. If it looks like Ra’am will lose [its place in] the Knesset, it will switch out Abbas,” Jabareen said.
According to Wadi’a Awawdeh, a radio commentator on Arab politics, the Shura council leaned on Abbas after feeling the heat itself from the Arab street.
“The street pressure brought the Islamic movement to push on its political party, Ra’am, to do something,” he said.
He noted that the Israeli police actions on the Temple Mount were stoking anger.
“The Israeli side thinks Al-Aqsa is just the mosque. But for Muslims — all of what Jews call the Temple Mount is Al-Aqsa. To enter the area, it’s like you’ve entered the mosque, it’s all holy,” he said.
Meanwhile, prevailing Palestinian narratives have held that Israel’s leadership has toughened its response at the Temple Mount in revenge for a string of Israeli Arab and Palestinian terror attacks in recent weeks and to show constitute it is doing something, Awawdeh noted.
Following a security assessment with defense officials and ministers on Sunday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that Israeli forces have “free rein” to continue operating to maintain security in Jerusalem, in particular in, “continuing to deal with rioters who violate public order.”
“The Palestinian street, which believes the whole area is holy, thinks that Israel is doing it as collective punishment after the terror attacks in Tel Aviv, Beersheba, Hadera,” Awawdeh said.
On Monday, Abbas told a radio interviewer that he wants Israel to return to the pre-2000 status quo on the Temple Mount. While he did not specify what that meant, the period was salient as a time when Israel coordinated all entry of Jewish visitors to the compound with the Jordanian Waqf, both Jabareen and Awawdeh said.
He later issued a series of other demands, including bread and butter Arab society issues, such as money for economic development and to advance housing plans, both toughening his stance and paving himself a way back into the coalition.
The demands reflect Abbas’s precarious position, in which finding his way back to the coalition means not only returning to early April 2022, before the Temple Mount became a battleground, but to April 2021, before perceived stagnation on issues important to Arab society made ideological compromise with the Bennett-led government politically unpalatable.
Ryan, the Kabul mayor, said frustration with Abbas’s way is so palpable that “people are starting to say that even Netanyahu was easier to deal with; at least he didn’t let the extreme right engage in provocations.”
“This freezes [on coalition membership] isn’t just a freeze,” he said. “There is a really hard split within Ra’am itself about whether or not to stay in the government.”