The Future Direction of Israeli-Arab Relations—Looking Better or Worse?

December 11, 2021
The Future of israeli-Arab Relations
Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett and Ra’am head Mansour Abbas after signing an agreement for a new government, June 2, 2021. (Photo: Ra’am party Twitter feed)

For the first time in three years the State of Israel has a budget.

The budget promises sweeping changes to many areas of life including: in the cost of living; the breaking down of some monopolies; infrastructure building, particularly in the areas of transportation and hospitals; increasing the retirement age for women; kosher certification; a rationalisation of the standards and approvals mechanism in many areas of importing; housing costs; agricultural subsidies; raising the socioeconomic level of minorities; taxes on plastics; and so on.

The passing of the budget saves Israel from an immediate election.

It also presents Netanyahu with his biggest political defeat since going into opposition. He had consistently promised his party and the public, that he would pull a rabbit out of the hat and defeat the budget and hence force new elections.

Netanyahu is definitely damaged politically—whether fatally or not remains to be seen.

He continues to remain Likud leader because of the disconnect between two realities.

Likud Knesset members who are at the coal face of parliament understand very well that it is Netanyahu who now keeps them out of government. On the other hand, the Likud voter base will not currently tolerate any thought of a handover to a new leader.

The prevailing opinion in Israel is that the Biden administration may have been playing it softly with the coalition government until the passing of the budget, so as not to endanger it. But that now, US pressure may mount.

A potential flashpoint is around the US wanting to reopen its consulate in Jerusalem that, until closed by then-President Trump, was for decades effectively the de facto US embassy to the Palestinians.

At their first joint post-budget media outing Prime Minster Bennett said:

“…there is no place for an American consulate that serves the Palestinians in Jerusalem… We are expressing our position consistently, quietly and without drama, and I hope it is understood. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel alone.”

Demonstrating full agreement and a united front, Foreign Minister Lapid followed, saying:

“If the Americans want to open a consulate in Ramallah, we have no problem with that. But sovereignty in Jerusalem belongs to one country, Israel.”

Despite the focus on the inclusion of Mansour Abbas’ Israeli Arab party Ra’am in the government as a point of internal friction, there are also other serious divisions within the coalition.

Abbas is either the devil in disguise, or a model for moving from radicalism to coexistence.

These differences are ironically, mostly between the other 7 largely Jewish Israeli parties and in the main centred on what to do about the Palestinians and the settlements.

Mansour Abbas, however, had all his coalition agreement conditions met, including the recognition of three previously unauthorised Bedouin towns in the Negev.

In regards to Israeli Arab infrastructure and fighting inter Arab crime, a record US$10 billion was budgeted over the next five years.

Whilst matters around the coalition’s survival may be important, of greater long-term significance to Israel, is just how Israeli Arabs will judge what Abbas has achieved.

Will this weave them in closer to the fabric of the State of Israel, or not?

Will real long-term improvements in their daily lives and a greater effort to equalise their socioeconomic situation, overcome ideological baggage?

Abbas’ Ra’am, having broken away from the other Israeli Arab parties, sits precariously close to the election threshold.

Will Israeli Arabs reward him for the gains no other Israeli Arab party has ever achieved, by voting in increased numbers for Ra’am—or will they reject him and leave him teetering on the edge of political oblivion?

The Jerusalem Post said that the dentist turned politician, Mansour Abbas, “is amongst the most refreshing figures on the Israeli political scene”

Having first been courted by Netanyahu, the price he demanded for joining Bennett and Lapid was focussed on practical rather than ideological matters. Netanyahu too was very willing to give the same concessions, it must be noted.

It is also worthwhile remembering that Abbas heads an Islamist party whose roots are the Moslem Brotherhood—ergo, sharing the same spiritual home as Hamas.

Depending on which side of the equation one sits—Abbas is either the devil in disguise or a model for moving from radicalism to coexistence.

Despite meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah earlier in the month, Mansour Abbas has been “unable to find the time” to meet with Mahmoud Abbas.

Said Mansour Abbas: “If I meet with Mahmoud Abbas, it’s a controversy, and if I don’t meet with him, it’s a controversy. Let’s let time do its thing.”

Many similarities can be drawn between the Arab and Haredi sectors: lower socio-economic levels; larger families; and more fundamentalist elements when it comes to religion. Just to name a few.

In a move not seen before, Mansour Abbas surprised everyone by promising Haredi leader Moshe Gafni MK approximately US$30 million from Abbas’ own budgetary allocations. That is, US$30 million that was earmarked for the Arab sector, is now to go, at the request of the Arab leadership, to assist the Haredi community.

A Haredi community desperately struggling from opposition, for a greater share of the budgetary pie.
Altruism by Abbas, or shrewd political move looking down the track to when they may find themselves wanting/having to sit together in government?

Whichever, he is certainly clever and well understands the art of politics.

Overall, if this budget ends up being properly and fully implemented, it will show us the future direction of the relationship between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens—for better or for worse.

How Israeli Arabs internally assess it and the struggles they will have in weighing up its benefits, as opposed to those who will accuse Abbas of selling out, will be of great importance to Israeli society’s long-term internal cohesion and security.

A budget may not necessarily usually be all that exciting, but this one is.

And it has multiple ramifications.

Ron Weiser

Dr Ron Weiser AM is a Life Member of the ZFA Executive, Past President of the ZFA and Hon Life Pres of the Zionist Council of NSW.

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