Why did Ra’am, an Arab Islamist party, partner up with Israel’s first kippah wearing prime minister?

Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid and Mansour Abbas are seen signing a coalition deal that puts Benjamin Netanyahu out of office. The deal brings together a conservative, liberal and Arab Islamist political party. (Photo: Handout)

For the first time in Israeli history an Arab Islamist political party is part of a ruling coalition and it took the country’s first kippah wearing prime minister to make it happen.

(Quick note: Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, still needs to vote to approve the proposed ruling coalition. Approval is expected to happen as enough MPs have expressed a yes vote for the new government, but being Israel anything can happen.)

In a deal that literally went down to the wire, Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas signed a coalition deal with Naftali Bennett, Israel’s next prime minister and former ally of Benjamin Netanyahu, and liberal politician Yair Lapid (who becomes prime minister in two years under a power sharing agreement).

“This is the first time that an Arab party is part of the process of forming a government. We of course hope that it works and that a government will rise after four rounds of elections,” Abbas said after the coalition was announced.

Under the proposed government Ra’am receives:

  • A cabinet post, regional cooperation minister
  • Billions of dollars of economic aid for Arab areas of Israel
  • Crackdown of crime in Arab areas
  • Legalization of 3 Bedouin villages
  • An agreement to discuss changing a controversial law which targets illegal Arab construction (the 2017 law is widely viewed by Arabs as discriminatory)

“We have reached a critical mass of agreements in various fields that serves the interest of Arab society and that provide solutions for the burning issues in Arab society — planning, the housing crisis, and of course, fighting violence and organized crime,” Abbas said.

Mansour Abbas, United Arab Party leader and other party members attend a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s residence on April 5, 2021 in Jerusalem, Israel. The country’s political leaders are meeting with President Reuven Rivlin to recommend who should be the next prime minister, with a mandate for forming a governing coalition. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

How did Ra’am win the election?

In the past, Arab political parties in Israel would unite and run under one faction in the hopes of securing seats in the Knesset as a bloc. This last election Ra’am broke the mold and stood alone, outside of the Joint List of Arab parties, and secured 4 Knesset seats (there are 120 seats in Israel’s parliament) making it the largest Arab party in parliament. The Joint List’s three other political parties received a total of six seats, each split among them.

Ra’am ran on the platform of securing Arab rights by playing within the electoral system, saying from the start that they were interested in working in a coalition government in order to gain advances for the Arab community. In other words Ra’am’s political strategy was to be a kingmaker, having the seats needed to put a coalition government in power.

Ra’am has worked with Netanyahu’s government and its leaders have reached out to Bennett in the past.

Ra’am’s power base is in the Negev, where they are popular with the region’s traditional Bedouin communities.

What does Ra’am stand for?

Ra’am is the political wing of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. The southern branch is considered more moderate than the northern branch, which was banned by the Israeli government in 2015 due to ties with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ra’am advocates for traditional Islamic values. Culturally they are very conservative and are against LGBTQIA rights and their charter calls Zionism a “racist, occupier thought.”

Before entering into the coalition, party officials sought and received approval from the Islamic Movement’s advisory Shura Council. The religious body has guided the Ra’am’s past votes on LGBT rights and other issues.

In 2020 Ra’am voted against a controversial law outlawing “gay conversion therapy.”

The party supports a two-state solution, with the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. They also support the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.

Mansour Abbas the head of the United Arab Party (Ra’am) delivers a speech on April 1, 2021 in Nazareth, Israel. 9Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Who is Mansour Abbas?

A devout Muslim, 47-year-old Mansour Abbas was born in the northern Israeli town of Maghar, which has a majority Druze population. He held nothing back this last election, telling voters that he wanted to be a kingmaker.

“We decided to join the government in order to change the balance of political forces in the country,” he told supporters in a message after the coalition government was announced.

“I say here clearly and frankly: when the very establishment of this government is based on our support…we will be able to influence it and accomplish great things for our Arab society,” he added.

A relative newcomer to politics, Abbas made his political debut two years ago when he was first elected to the Knesset. He studied dentistry at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the same alma mater of Naftali Bennett.

Following the vote on outlawing “gay conversion therapy,” Abbas accused Arab parliamentarians who voted for the ban of breaking with their “cultural roots.”

Abbas, Bennett and Lapid walk into a hotel around midnight

After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a government the task was then given to Yair Lapid, an Israeli politician and former journalist serving as chairman of the Yesh Atid and opposition leader in the Knesset.

Despite Yesh Atid securing the most seats in the Knesset after Likud (17 to Likud’s 30), the conditions of the power sharing government have Naftali Bennett, who’s Yamina Religious Right party secured 7 seats, will serve as prime minister first. If the government holds, Lapid will take over as prime minister in two years.

The new government will not include Ra’am in security measures.

A devout Muslim joins forces with a religious Jew

On top of sharing the same university, both Mansour Abbas and Naftali Bennett are religious men. Abbas is the first Arab Islamist in a power sharing government in Israel and Bennett is the first Modern Orthodox, frum (religious) prime minister of the Jewish state.

Speaking to reporters the day after his government was announced, Bennett called out critics who have come out against the inclusion of an Islamist party.

“Mansour Abbas isn’t a terror supporter,” Bennett said. “I met an honest man and a brave leader who is reaching out and seeking to help Israeli citizens.”

At first reluctant to join forces with Abbas, Bennet told Channel 12 News that he had a change of heart following the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas. “During the war and the riots there was something that caught me. Abbas came to the synagogue in Lod [that had been set on fire] during the tensest moments, and said, ‘I want to help.’ I saw a decent man, I saw a brave leader, it must be said. Now, time will tell. I can’t guarantee anything. But when he extends a hand and says something very simple: ‘I want to take care of Arab Israelis’ civilian issues…’ If you look at the coalition agreements that we will publish, you will not find a single world of nationalism.”

Despite the historic nature of the government, Bennett conceded that the Israel-Palestinian conflict will not be solved under the current coalition government.

“The national conflict between the State of Israel and the Palestinians is not over land. The Palestinians do not recognize the essence of our existence here, and this will apparently be the case for a long time to come,” Bennett said. Adding that his goal was to “minimize the conflict. We won’t be able to solve it.”