The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An Islamist party is part of Israel’s new coalition government. How did that happen?

Israel has marginalized Arab parties and Arab voters for decades

Right-wing supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wave the national flag during a demonstration against the coalition to form a government, in the central Israeli city of Petah Tikva, on Thursday. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)
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Last week, minutes before his 28-day mandate expired, Yair Lapid, head of Israel’s Yesh Atid party, announced that he had obtained the necessary agreements with parties that would allow him to form a coalition government.

Assuming no last-minute “defections” among Knesset members, the incoming government will have eight female ministers, a record number, and a record number of coalition partners — eight parties in all. Israel’s 36th government is also expected to be the first in more than 40 years to include an Arab party, the Islamist Ra’am party. Here’s the history behind this shift.

Arab voters have been marginalized from Israeli politics

Between 1949 and 1977, the Mapai party, and its successor, Israel’s Labor party, dominated Israeli politics. Mapai’s satellite Arab parties were nominally part of Israel’s coalition governments, although they never played a pivotal role and did not necessarily represent Arab voters’ interests. But Arab parties have been excluded from governing coalitions since 1977, when the right-wing Likud party formed Israel’s 18th government.

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became more salient, it came to define Israel’s right and left blocs. This conflict also led Arab parties (and their voters) to increasingly define themselves in nationalist terms, further contributing to their political exclusion.

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Arab parties became further marginalized when Yitzhak Rabin’s government began peace negotiations. In 1993, Rabin’s government survived a vote of no confidence with the help of two non-Zionist parties — Hadash and the Arab Democratic Party — even though they were not coalition members. In 1995, the votes of three Hadash Knesset members allowed the Oslo accords to be ratified by a vote of 61 to 59.

The Israeli right responded by claiming that any territorial compromise in the West Bank and Gaza was illegitimate if it passed without a Jewish majority. The ensuing debate cemented a belief among a majority of Israeli Jews that important decisions relating to security or foreign affairs must rely on a Jewish majority, and that coalitions that relied on Arab parties were illegitimate. A 2019 survey found that less than 20 percent of Jewish respondents approved of incorporating Arab parties into coalitions.

In 2013, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman agreed to raise the electoral threshold, forcing out small Arab parties. This prompted Israel’s four main Arab parties to unite into one Joint List, galvanizing Arab voters and gaining 13 parliamentary seats.

In response, Netanyahu’s government delegitimized Arab parties even further, calling them terrorism supporters. The deepening taboo on Arab party participation suited Israel’s right wing, making it mathematically impossible for the shrinking center-left to form a coalition government in the past decade.

Although the majority of Arab voters in Israel support Arab parties joining coalition governments, their exclusion has minimized their ability to influence government policy, and they experience persistent discrimination, unequal access to resources and high crime. Consequently, Arab voter turnout has decreased relative to the turnout of Jewish citizens (see figure).

Arab Israelis and Palestinian Israelis make up 15 percent of the voter population, but Arab parties have only 10 percent of seats in the Knesset. Decreased turnout reflects both the marginalization of their representatives and the increasing alienation of many voters from an Israel where the right dominates, the peace process has collapsed and controversial laws further emphasize Jewish supremacy at the expense of the Arab minority. A growing segment of Arab Israelis remain disillusioned about the ability to change anything through voting.

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Now an Arab party holds the balance of power

By the time of the 2021 elections — the fourth in less than two years — the big cleavage in Israel’s politics was not left vs. right but “pro/anti Netanyahu.” When Netanyahu again had difficulty forming a coalition, he began negotiating with Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Islamist Ra’am party, whom Netanyahu had encouraged to run independently from the Joint List.

Netanyahu and his party members worked hard to legitimize the Islamist party as a coalition partner. Ultimately, their strategy failed, in part because of the objections of the extreme right-wing Religious Zionist Party. However, it shifted public opinion. After the elections, the share of Jewish support for including Arab parties in the coalition more than doubled, to 48 percent.

This shift removed the obstacle that the opposition faced on negotiating with Abbas, allowing the formation of a governing coalition. Now, in contrast to the satellite parties of the past, an Arab party was a kingmaker, providing the decisive vote for government formation. This new power allowed Ra’am to secure more resources for Arab communities to combat organized crime, official recognition of several unrecognized Arab villages, and concessions such as a moratorium on the demolition of houses built without permits.

What does this historical moment mean for the future of Israeli politics? On one hand, the breaking of the long-standing taboo could see Arab parties continuing to be legitimate coalition partners, potentially shifting the strategic calculus of Israeli politics by expanding the center-left bloc, and giving Israel’s Arab and Palestinian citizens greater incentive to vote. That could signal hope for greater integration of the Arab minority in Israel, and for greater Jewish-Arab cooperation.

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On the other hand, Ra’am was legitimized because it focused exclusively on bread-and-butter issues, avoiding comment on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and dropping demands to revoke the 2018 Jewish nation-state law, which codified the supremacy of the state’s Jewish identity. Ra’am is also conservative on social issues such as gender equality and LGBTQ rights.

The more liberal Joint List is vocal about Palestinian issues, which explains why “Never Netanyahu” right-wing parties such as New Hope and Yisrael Beiteinu refuse to include it in any coalition, even though most Joint List parties have signaled a willingness to participate. For some Arab citizens, Ra’am’s move represents an exchange of resources for political support, reverting to an old bargain that replaces demands for equal citizenship with economic aid.

A political taboo in Israel has been broken, but it remains to be seen whether this signals a strategic shift toward equal political partnership — or instead strengthens the existing system, while depoliticizing minority demands for recognition and equality.

correction

A previous version of this article misstated the name of the Israel Democracy Institute. The article has been corrected.

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Guy Grossman is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and the co-director of Penn’s Development Research Initiative. Find him on Twitter @guygrossman.

Devorah Manekin is an assistant professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and author of “Regular Soldiers, Irregular War: Violence and Restraint in the Second Intifada” (Cornell University Press, 2020). Find her on Twitter @DevorahManekin.

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