After splitting from the Joint List ahead of the last Israeli election, the United Arab List (Ra’am), the Islamist party led by Mansour Abbas, ran a campaign that tried to market the party as “conservative” while concurrently offering a “new approach” to Arab politics in Israel. According to this “approach,” Ra’am could join any new Israeli government, regardless of whether it was left or right wing, even if it meant sitting with Kahanists in the same coalition. Ra’am’s break from the other three Arab parties in the Joint List, Abbas insisted, was set to be “historic.”
In exchange for said partnership and active support for this supposedly groundbreaking moment, the Islamist party promised its constituents several main outcomes. They included an unprecedented package of benefits in the form of large public budgets; a government plan to fight raging crime and murder rates within Palestinian communities in Israel; the recognition of unrecognized Palestinian Bedouin villages in the Naqab/Negev desert; and the abolition of the discriminatory Kaminitz Law, which threatens to demolish thousands of Arab homes for being built without permits that would never be granted in the first place. In other words, Abbas was willing to sell out the united Palestinian political front for the basic rights his community should already be entitled to.
As for Israel’s siege on Gaza, attacks on Al-Aqsa Mosque, the expansion of West Bank settlements, or the Judaization of binational cities in Israel? According to Abbas’ approach, these are not issues he needs to solve.
On Wednesday night, Abbas finally made his “history” by joining the new government, which will be headed by the far-right Naftali Bennett, in exchange for embarrassingly little: no abolition of any discriminatory, apartheid-esque laws (including the Jewish Nation State Law); a promise to channel some budgets to Arab communities some time in the future; and forming a Knesset committee to discuss recognition of a handful of Bedouin villages.
So, what exactly is the new approach here? It is true that Mansour Abbas is the first leader of an Arab party to be a part of a governing coalition — at least since the so-called Arab satellite parties in the early days of the state, which pledged fealty to the ruling Mapai party. But is this really a significant development worth celebrating?
In truth, this is not the landmark moment that many people are talking about — and the reason is quite simple. Throughout our history as Palestinian citizens, we have had various Arab individuals who were part of an Israeli governing coalition. Israel has even had an Arab minister of science, culture, and sport, Ghaleb Majadleh, from the Labor Party (my most vivid memory of his tenure was the image of him falling asleep during some ceremony).
History is full of these so-called Palestinian leaders who effectively sold out their people’s cause for their own personal benefit. During the military rule over Palestinian citizens of the state from 1948 to 1966, the Israeli establishment appointed and propped up “mukhtars” in many Arab towns and villages, bestowing power and prestige on elders who would be loyal to the colonial regime. In his book “Good Arabs,” based on previously-hidden state archives and the accounts of Palestinian citizens, Israeli historian Hillel Cohen vividly describes these years of Arab salesmanship in the pursuit of favorable positions with the military regime, including for influential posts in schools, local councils, and government.
This “good Arab” approach, hoping to be embraced by the Jewish-Israeli establishment, bears striking similarities to Malcolm X’s searing description of the “house slave,” which calls out the futile attempts by segments of the Black community in the United States to “integrate” and be “accepted” by the white majority. Palestinian citizens, though, know that they can never become completely “Israeli.” The Zionist establishment has attempted to force this myth on us through the erasure of our culture and identity — including by trying to transform us into “Israeli Arabs” — even though they are clear that this will always be a “Jewish state.”
We Palestinian citizens, however, are still pushing back against this erasure and the divide-and conquer policy that Israel has been practicing since 1948. Palestinians should be part of the decision-making process in the country, but only if Israel stops besieging, expelling, and killing our people. Entering an occupying government is not only a kosher stamp for its crimes against our people, it is actively aiding the state’s attempts to keep our community fragmented.
And yet, despite Abbas’ “good Arab” approach, it has become clear that millions of Palestinians across the country are choosing a different direction — without taking cues from their political representatives. From the Ramadan protests in East Jerusalem, to the struggle in Sheikh Jarrah, to the defense of Palestinian homes in binational cities against Jewish settlers and the police, Palestinians have been making their own history. Nearly every Palestinian town or village across Israel held a protest for Sheikh Jarrah, Al-Aqsa, Gaza, and for themselves. This near-unprecedented show of unity led to last month’s historic general strike, with the mass participation of Palestinians from the river to the sea and beyond.
That the next generation of Palestinians in Israel has taken to the streets to reclaim its dignity is the real historic moment. They are the ones showing the world what a “new approach” can truly look like.