Arab parties could be kingmakers in Israeli politics: Experts

LONDON: After two years and four elections, there appears no end in sight to the political turmoil engulfing Israel, but amid the uncertainty, Arab parties have emerged as unexpected political kingmakers.

At an online event hosted on Thursday by think tank Chatham House and attended by Arab News, Ruth Wasserman Lande, a former member of Israel’s Knesset (Parliament) for the Blue and White Party, said Arab parties have unexpectedly found themselves in a position of power after the country’s March election ended in yet another political stalemate.

During the election, she added, “for the very first time the Arab electorate, having been relatively ignored for the last decade at least by the Netanyahu-led government, suddenly became courted, and ironically the biggest courter was (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu himself.”

She said because of Israel’s coalition-focused political system, Arab parties such as Ra’am, known as the United Arab List in English, could have a disproportionate impact on politics despite controlling just four Knesset seats.

“Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am Party, is potentially the maker of kings, or the breaker of kingdoms, at this particular moment,” Lande added.

On Tuesday, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin acknowledged that no party leader had “a realistic chance of forming a government that will have the confidence of the Knesset.”

But despite this, he invited Netanyahu to try to form a government, saying he had a “slightly” better chance than his rival Yair Lepid of successfully negotiating a coalition.

Lande said Abbas’s support, or lack thereof, for Netanyahu’s coalition either “makes it or breaks it.”

She added that the saga demonstrates the potential of the Arab electorate to shape Israeli politics from the inside — a capacity hampered by its low turnout in national elections.

“The Arab community and the Arab potential electorate in the past years — I’m talking about very many years — has been very apathetic in terms of its participation in national elections. That’s very unfortunate because they have a huge potential to influence,” she said.

“If a greater Arab voter turnout becomes a reality, the potential of the Arab street to influence the Israeli political system inherently is huge, because a small party can make a huge difference.”

Arab involvement could be instrumental in ending Israel’s political deadlock, Ksenia Svetlova, a former Knesset member, said at Thursday’s event.

“This time the Israelis went to the polling stations again, and the only question they focused on wasn’t foreign policy, the Abraham Accords, the Palestinian conflict or even coronavirus,” she added.

“They were all secondary to the only issue that’s at the center of everyone’s attention: Are you for Netanyahu or are you against Netanyahu? Society is very conflicted … It’s divided on the question of who’ll lead the country.”

Svetlova said this division has created a rift in Israeli politics that has led to a stalemate on many issues of significant national importance.

“It seems that the Israeli government is actually running away from difficult decisions, whether its state and religion, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the groaning social and economic gaps in society,” she added.

“We see a great fault in the process of decision-making. You can’t advance issues during election campaigns and without a budget approved by the Knesset.”

She said a prime example of this deadlock is seen in the Netanyahu government’s handling of allegations of war crimes against Palestinians in the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands.

“Yesterday, Israel apparently found out that it has to react to the developments in The Hague. Only yesterday, it held a discussion at the highest levels on how to respond — the same goes for the new American policy vis-a-vis Iran,” she added.

“The process of decision-making is non-existent anymore in Israel. This is the consequence of the political stalemate in Israel.”

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