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An Islamist political party may hold the key to forming Israel’s next government

Mansour Abbas, leader of the United Arab List, votes in Israel's parliamentary election at a polling station in Maghar on March 23. (Mahmoud Illean/AP)

JERUSALEM — How did a Muslim dentist from an Arab village 11 miles from Lebanon end up as a potential kingmaker among Jewish lawmakers battling for power in Jerusalem?

The surprising star turn of Mansour Abbas at the center of Israeli politics stems from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s desperate search for parliamentary seats. And it could signal the possible softening of Israel’s long-standing taboo against Jewish parties partnering with Arab parties.

A final tally from Tuesday’s election — Israel’s fourth during two years of political stalemate — was announced Thursday, and it showed that Netanyahu had fallen short of securing the majority he needs to stay in office. The results confirm that his Likud party won the most seats in the Knesset, but the bloc of parties that are certain to support him only won 52 seats, nine shy of the number needed for a majority. His opponents, too, failed to garner a majority, with a collection of anti-Netanyahu parties securing 57 seats.

In the scramble to find supporters, both sides are now looking at the four seats won by the United Arab List, a small Islamist party led by Abbas.

Normally, the Jewish leaders would keep looking. Never before has an independent Arab party been invited to join a governing coalition.

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But two members of Netanyahu’s Likud party caused a sensation the day after the election by refusing to rule out such a partnership if it is the only way to avoid further deadlock and yet another election in coming months.

“It is our duty to do everything we can to prevent a fifth election,” coalition chairman Miki Zohar told the media site Ynet. “All the existing political options must be exhausted.”

Other members of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition reacted furiously to that idea — “not on my watch,” tweeted Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionist Party — while Netanyahu said nothing.

Netanyahu has already broken one barrier in this election, by welcoming Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of an extremist Jewish party with roots in the overtly racist Kahanist movement, into his coalition and potentially into his cabinet.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu was silent about the talk from his colleagues of linking with the Arab party. He had previously dismissed the idea, and some political insiders interpreted his silence as a subtle shift.

“He didn’t say flat no today,” noted Aviv Bushinsky, a political analyst and former Netanyahu adviser. “If it is the only way for him to get the majority, I think it is a valid possibility.”

Abbas says he’s willing to talk to anyone about a potential alliance and news reports said he has a meeting scheduled with former news anchor Yair Lapid, the leader of the anti-Netanyahu factions.

“We’re prepared to hold talks with both sides, with anyone who wants to form a government and considers himself to be a future prime minister,” Abbas said in a radio interview. “If an offer is received, we’ll sit down and talk.”

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Huge obstacles remain before Abbas signs with either side of the political spectrum, especially Netanyahu’s right-wing faction. But even the tentative interest marks a significant shift in entrenched attitudes.

“This is such a taboo in Israel,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a Tel Aviv-based pollster who has advocated for more Arab participation in government. “It’s a breakthrough that it’s even being contemplated.”

Abbas, 46, hails from a small, majority-Druze village in northern Israel. He’s one of the 2 million Arab citizens who make up about 20 percent of the country’s population. Most are descended from families that remained in Israel after many Palestinians fled or were forced from their land following Israel’s creation in 1948.

A devout Muslim and father of three, according to recent profiles in Israeli media, Abbas speaks Hebrew and Arabic and studied dentistry at Hebrew University. He did not respond to requests for an interview.

Since 2007, he has been the head of the United Arab List, a party centered on conservative Islamic values. In recent elections, his was one of a group of Arab parties that successfully ran as a single entity, winning a record 15 Arab seats in the most recent Knesset, including four members from his party.

But Abbas had several disagreements with his more liberal Arab partners, particularly when they supported a bill championed by LGBTQ groups to outlaw so-called gay conversion therapy.

Soon after new elections were called in December, Netanyahu begin a semipublic courtship of Abbas. The two talked of working together to address problems in Arab communities beset by a violent crime wave and crumbling infrastructure. Abbas then announced that he was splitting from the Arab Joint List to run independently.

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Critics accused Abbas of abetting Netanyahu’s plan to fracture the Arab vote and weaken Arab influence. Hecklers drove him from a rally in an Arab town earlier this month. Abbas responded in multiple interviews: “We’re not in anyone’s pocket.”

Bushinsky can imagine a scenario in which Netanyahu makes Abbas “kosher” to his right-wing partners by having him walk back some of his past criticism of Zionism.

But many political observers here say it remains inconceivable that Netanyahu would make Abbas part of a governing coalition that is now, with Ben-Gvir’s presence, more virulently anti-Arab than ever.

Such a coalition would put those who want the entire West Bank annexed for Jewish settlement under the same tent as supporters of an independent Palestinian state.

“Netanyahu would be hostage to both the most extreme right-wing elements and the most extreme left-wing elements, and that is a recipe for disaster,” said Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Hebrew University.

More likely, according to multiple analysts, is that Abbas would help Netanyahu by not voting for any center-left coalition that tries to form a government. That would keep the prime minister from being replaced and almost certainly bring about another election.

But whatever Abbas does, his relationship with Netanyahu already has widened the opening for Arab politicians in mainstream politics.

Historically, Arab parties have operated outside the governing coalitions or even the formal opposition. Neither Arab nor Jewish parties were comfortable with more in a country where the
Israel-Palestinian conflict is ever present.

But in recent years, both sides have gradually grown closer. Arab parties usually sit out the selection of one Jewish coalition or another, but in 2020, the Arab Joint List joined the voting for the center-left candidate Benny Gantz to become prime minister.

“Both sides have been barricaded in their mutual boycotts,” Scheindlin said. “But the ideal of Jewish-Arab partnership has been a rising theme.”

Amid speculation in 2020 that Gantz’s party would consider forming a government with Arab partners, Netanyahu implied that they were working with Israel’s enemies.

Now, his critics say it is Netanyahu who has exploded the idea that Arab politicians are out of bounds.

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