A New Era in Arab-Jewish Relations?

The United Arab List's participation in Israel's ruling coalition represents Israel's preference for indirect rule over full citizenship when dealing with its Palestinian citizens.

UAL leader Mansour Abbas with then President Reuven Rivlin, April 2021

How are we to understand the rise of the United Arab List (UAL)? The political branch of the southern wing of the Islamist movement, it is the first wholly Palestinian party to join a governing coalition in Israel.  But is this a breakthrough, and does it promise a new era in relations between the state and its Palestinian citizens? And if so, then what are the main features of this new era? And more generally, what are the politics of the UAL, and what are its main components and features?

I will start by explaining the status of the UAL, headed by Mansour Abbas, within the Israeli parliamentary system. Following a general election in Israel, the various factions nominate the Knesset member with the best chances of establishing a governing coalition. The number of Knesset members supporting the proposed new government need not be an outright majority of the Knesset, i.e., more than 60 members. Rather, they only need to outnumber those who oppose the proposed new government. Thus, a new government can enter office with a vote of 59 against 58 votes. What is required is, therefore, a relative rather than an absolute majority. To guarantee the stability of this relative majority, the preferred candidate to lead a new government must enter into coalition agreements with other factions in the Knesset in order to guarantee the governing majority. The UAL is part of the current governing coalition, although it does not have any ministers in the cabinet. This is the strategic move of the UAL that I want to evaluate.

It is no secret that some commentators, analysts, and journalists have celebrated the occasion. Henry Olsen of the Washington Post described the move as “an opportunity to usher in an era of reconciliation”; a report by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) considered it a “breakthrough in the consciousness of both sides”; Hagit Amit, a journalist with The Marker (the business daily published by left-leaning national daily Haaretz) opened his column by arguing that “Mansour Abbas is making history.” Still, for Palestinian citizens of Israel, it is far more controversial; while it clearly finds some support, there has been widespread criticism of this move across the Palestinian political spectrum.

Before evaluating this move later in detail, I will first present a sketch of the UAL and its guiding principles over the last two years, based on their own pronouncements and public positions.  (Some of the analysis and arguments that I make here were published in an article I wrote for the magazine Kul-Alarab in 2020, in an article titled “The Israeli Muslim?”)

1. A key aspect of the UAL’s political approach is its self-positioning outside the left-right Zionist divide in Israel. The party does not see any differences between Zionist Jewish parties of the Left and Right, or see any added value in aligning themselves with left-wing Zionists. This approach can gain support from the fact that although the Joint Arab List—the larger of the two factions representing the Arab constituency in the Knesset—nominated Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist party Blue & White, as the Prime Minister to the Israeli president, Gantz did not have the courage to establish a coalition based on the support of its Knesset members. For the UAL, this proves that there is no real difference between left and right in Israel, and there is no reason that Palestinian politics should limit itself within the confines of left Zionist parties. This understanding informed the decision of the UAL to enter negotiations with Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party—even though this could have led to the UAL sitting in government with radical right-wing politicians like Bezalel Smotrich of the National Religious Party and Itamar Ben Gvir of Otzma Yehudit.

In this sense, one can discern two dividing lines in the politics of Palestinians in Israel. First, is there any difference between Zionists of the Left and Right? Second, is there any point in trying to influence Israeli politics from within?

One point of view argues that there is no great difference between Zionists of the Left and Right. But within this camp, there are two opposing groups. One group, led by the UAL, argues that there is no difference; that they should be prepared to deal with both sides and try to influence Israeli politics from the inside—not merely in the Knesset, but also from within the coalition government of the day. The other group, made up mainly by the traditional Sons of the Village and the northern branch of Islamic movement—both inspired by anti-colonial nativist politics—agree that there indeed there is no major difference between Zionists of the Left and Right, but nevertheless reach the opposite conclusion: that for this reason, there is no justification for standing for election and sitting in the Knesset in the first place, because any hope of influencing Israeli politics through participation in the electoral process will be in vain. Instead, this group calls for a boycott of the Israeli electoral process, and championing a popular struggle informed by anti-Apartheid principles from outside the parliamentary system.

On the other hand, the UAL shares with the Joint List faction (which includes the communist Hadash and the nationalist Balad) the belief that there is a point in trying to influence Israeli politics, and thus to participate in the election cycle. However, the two differ in their interpretation of the idea of influence, and how far to go in this Israeli game of influencing the system. While one can draw a clear line between sitting in the Knesset and sitting in government, and make a distinction between left- and right-wing Zionists, the UAL is willing to cooperate with both the right-wing and left-wing in order to achieve its own ends, and is ready to participate in the government as well in the Knesset. The important thing is to be a major player within Israeli politics.

2. The prioritizing of society, religion, and culture over politics, and the civic over the political. By now, there is enough evidence that the UAL foregrounds religious and cultural issues over those of politics in general—be these the question of Palestine, national issues, or even issues related to the nature of the state, political freedoms, the nature of the regime and good governance. One of the issues that sparked the conflict within the Knesset faction of Palestinian political parties in Israel, and a key reason in the UAL’s decision to split from the Joint Arab List (JAL) faction, was that of LGBTQ rights. Abbas’s partners in the JAL faction voted in support of a Knesset law forbidding conversion treatment for gays and lesbians under the age of 18. The UAL considered this law an unacceptable attack on traditional and religious values. One can argue that the new-found prominence of the UAL indicates a rise in identity politics—albeit not in the sense of national politics, but of religious identity politics. In the meantime, Abbas has put the political issue of Jewish construction in the settlements to the side, instead focusing on civil issues and budgets, with some describing his politics as focusing on “bread and butter” issues. It is no wonder that after the March 2021 elections, the whole country waiting on Dr. Abbas’s position regarding the coalition and his political demands, he deliberately refused to use the word “occupation” during a televised address, so as to avoid alienating Jewish Israeli viewers. In an earlier interview on Israeli TV, when asked about meeting with Palestinian prisoners he responded that he had never met with “terrorists.”

The current governing coalition agreement has noteworthy achievements in terms of investment in Israeli Palestinian society, including earmarking a total of 30 billion New Israel Shekels (NIS) over the next five years. That said, it is difficult to tell how substantial this change is in light of a number of facts. First, not everything that goes into a coalition agreement necessarily goes into the budget, which must be passed into law by the Knesset. More importantly, not everything included in a budget will pass the legality threshold, set by the legal advisers of the respective ministries, for final approval of the proposed expenditure. Also, it is always not easy to tell whether budgetary allocations are extra investment on the top of the normal budget, or in fact the same old budget taking on a new shape and a different name. Members of the JAL have argued that even without entering the coalition, and even under Netanyahu himself, they succeeded in implementing the massive Plan No 922, amounting to 22 billion NIS.

More important, however, is what is absent from the coalition agreement: nothing about the future of the Occupied Territories, nothing about the Basic Law: Israel—the Nation State of the Jewish people, and no mention of changes to laws passed during the Netanyahu era targeting the political freedoms of Palestinian citizens of Israel. The UAL can argue that these are mere political disputes. But the issue is that the settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem continues as if this is natural and normal. And therein lies the problem: this coalition has placed this issue beyond any controversy, this time with the stamp of a major Palestinian party.

Can we still defend this move by the UAL?

While I am not supportive of the UAL’s move, I will start by trying to make sense of it, considering the main arguments in support of the UAL’s decision to enter the coalition. I will then outline where and why I differ, and why I think that this decision is a step backwards.

First, a few arguments in favor of this current coalition.

The citizenship argument: First is the argument of citizenship. 70 years after the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel, Palestinian Israelis are for the first time being recognized as participants in the governance of the state. As government coalition partners, they have become legitimate political actors, able to influence the politics and public life of Israel. This is a confirmation of their status as citizens.

The “Taking Care of Ourselves” argument: Second, given the fact that there is nothing on the horizon with respect to the question of Palestine, it is only reasonable and legitimate that the Palestinian citizens of Israel take care of themselves for the time being, rather than waiting for something that may never come. This argument gets some support from the fact that there are pressing problems facing the Palestinian community in Israel, including the issues of personal security and organized crime. Under such extreme conditions, one ought to carefully consider extraordinary measures; to focus on the immediate and dire material needs of society, rather than clinging to a political and national rhetoric that has not led anywhere.

The evolution argument: Third, while it is true that not all the UAL’s demands are being fulfilled, this is but the first step on a long journey. True, this is not a revolution but the beginning of a journey of evolution. The achievements may accumulate one after the other; what we gain today, so the UAL argument goes, will not hinder further achievements tomorrow. An all-or-nothing strategy is unwise, and has proved to be useless in the past.

Now, I will try to consider all these arguments seriously, and show why they are not, in fact, convincing.

The citizenship argument:

I think that citizenship, despite its many shortcomings as a formal or legal category within liberal discourse, is still highly important, and can be deployed in many settings in emancipatory and even decolonizing ways. (I discuss this problematic issue at length in my paper “When Does a Settler Become a Native? (With Apologies to Mamdani)” So, my argument against the UAL does not rest on a different attitude regarding the importance of citizenship in political and national struggles, but rather the other way around. The issue with the UAL is that it has not established its politics on the concept of citizenship and the rights discourse. Likewise, its Jewish partners do not view this coalition along the lines of equal citizenship.

First, it is important to note that this coalition differs from the experience of Hadash and the Arabic Democratic Party during the Oslo years of the 1990s (regardless of the question of what one thinks of that experience), in establishing what came to be known as the “blocking bloc” (BB). In those years, the government of Israel made an important step toward the PLO, recognizing it as representative of the Palestinian people; and, consequently, toward the Palestinian citizens of Israel, not only in rhetoric but also in practice. When the state makes a step toward the Palestinians, it makes sense that they reciprocate. Establishing the BB was in harmony with the PLO’s desire to reach a historic compromise with Israel; opposing the Rabin government of the day amounted to blocking what has been viewed as an opportunity for some kind of compromise.

But this time, the conditions are starkly different, even standing in diametric opposition to the earlier situation. The last decade has witnessed constant incitement against Palestinians in Israel. Tens of laws targeting their political and social rights, and delegitimizing their presence in political life, have been passed in recent years (Adalah—the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, maintains a database of such laws). The most recent—and infamous—of these is the Basic Law: Israel—Nation State for the Jewish People. This law simply disregards the existence of the Palestinians in Israel entirely. it perpetuates Jewish supremacy, establishing Israel—in law, not merely in practice—as a  apartheid state, by de facto and de jure declaring the state to belong only to the Jewish people: rendering the Palestinian citizens second-class citizens, banning them from using state land, privileging Jews in the issues of the settlements, and relegating the status of Arabic to that of a non-official language. This law comes on top of a policy adopted by successive governments of accelerating settlement growth—and the de jure annexation of the West Bank. Thus, the background condition is not whether the state has taken a step toward the Palestinians, whether in Israel or in the West Bank. Rather, we are witnessing an attack on the whole Palestinian question in general, and on the Palestinian citizens of Israel as well. Many key figures in the current government were also key figures in the immediately preceding government; there is no sign whatsoever that they intend to change their policy.

Entering the coalition under these conditions means accepting the guiding logic of the state, and accepting the legal-political grammar of the basic nationality law that clearly establishes two kinds of citizens. And whenever there are two kinds of citizens, we no longer have citizenship as the organizing concept, but rather the logic of subjects; we replace the language of rights with the language of privileges. With its move, the UAL seems to be signalling that Palestinian Israelis must accept our own inferior status, and be prepared to play the game under these rules.

Reading the materials and listening to the leaders of the UAL, following their activity in the Knesset, and reading the coalition agreement that they signed, it is evident that the hidden bargain between them and the other coalition factions is not one established on the basis of an equal civic discourse, offering a democratic culture where citizenship is the cornerstone of this political vision. Rather, there is another logic. This alternative logic is based on a kind of division of labor: the Jewish-Zionist factions deal with politics, with the UAL abstaining on all political and civil rights issues—freedom of speech, independence of the judiciary, the attack on academic freedoms, and other components of a democratic and liberal regime. Instead, the UAL is expected to focus on its constituency, to focus on budgets, to gain power over its own society and to establish itself as the dominant power within the Palestinian community. The UAL is trying to be the Shas of the Palestinian community in Israel: an Ultra-Orthodox right-wing party concentrating on social issues, and thus fostering a sectarian rather than civic liberal politics. The difference, though, is that in fact the UAL will not be able to play the role of Shas. Shas, the right-leaning Haredi religious political party, accepts the basic Zionist core ideas; its main aim is to foster and promote the immediate interests of its religious-conservative constituency through coalition manoeuvres. Shas does not belong to a nation or people that have their national question still unresolved; nor does it belong to a people, of whom part are under occupation and others still refugees struggling for their simple survival.  While Shas does make some ideological concessions, whether implicitly or explicitly, when it enters government, these differ substantially from the concessions that the UAL has made. In fact, both parties represent a conservative and anti-liberal political agenda that consolidates tribal politics—not an agenda based on shared ideals of equal citizenship. The difference is that Shas has room for maneuver while inhabiting its role, whereas the UAL lacks such a space. Unless, of course, it accepts the logic of the new Basic Law, internalizes the inferior status of Palestinian citizens, gives up on issues of historical justice and even demands for full civic equality based on equal rights, and gives up its role within the larger political scene of Israel-Palestine.

One of the main problems in the UAL strategy is that it adopts in full a strategy of lobbying based on its electoral weight, and the utility of this in forming any future government. But how far can one rely on such strategy? This government, and the dire need that the coalition has for the UAL, is unique and outstanding. The presumption is that future right-wing governments, once Netanyahu has left the scene, could be formed easily without counting on the UAL. In such a situation, the UAL will lose the only means it has of influencing politics. They do not have strategic allies; they do not build long-term alliances; they do not try to influence politics by other means, such as influencing the political discourse itself. They will not be able to pressure Israel internationally, or to launch campaigns against its politics, etc. They have given up all these options, thus becoming hostages to one mode and model of politics: the Shas model.

What we should notice is the fact that joining the coalition only came after a fierce battle between the UAL and the Joint List. By running separately, the UAL fragmented the united power of Palestinians in Israel. This decision was accompanied by some incitement on the part of the UAL against the Joint List’s leaders, as being simply concerned with political rhetoric and extremism, establishing a split between “good” and “bad” Arabs—something that could be easily deployed by Israeli governments and officials to delegitimatize the leaders of the Joint List.

Thus, by joining the coalition without raising any questions about the nature and the structure of the state and its discriminatory laws, and by treating fellow Palestinian Knesset members as irrelevant and even radical, the UAL is blocking the potential for any far-reaching future changes regarding the democratization of Israel. By accepting the current framework, the UAL renders demands for Israel to become a genuine state of all its citizens, or for the abolition of the recent Basic Law, or for full equality, as radical and perhaps even illegitimate demands. If and when other political parties or figures seek to put them back on the table, they will be easily labelled as radicals. The UAL is helping in policing and self-censoring the political discourse of Palestinians in Israel. This is a high price for its relatively minimal achievements.

Let us now consider the “Taking Care of Ourselves” argument.

A few comments are required here.

First, it is not true that in the last few years, Knesset members from the Joint List have been preoccupied mainly with regional political questions or the problem of Palestine writ large. In fact, they have been mainly occupied with the issues of Palestinians in Israel. (In my view, they did not invest enough time in addressing issues of occupation, settlements, and the future of Palestine—something that I believe that they have a duty to do, both to their Palestinian people, but also to their fellow Jewish citizens).

The Taking Care of Ourselves argument, in fact, accepts the logic that we, as Palestinians, should not deal with general politics, and that we can gain more if we do not speak of politics. But this kind of logic establishes a dangerous precedent in our relationship with the state. It leads our very basic rights, such as the right to security, and the duty of the state to ensure our own safety, to become subject to political bargaining, hinging on our support of the coalition. This does not enhance our status as citizens, but instead amounts to accepting that our rights are not rights per se, but rather privileges to be delivered only if we behave well.

Furthermore, we have a duty both as citizens and as members of our Palestinian peoplehood to bring about a just solution to the Palestinian question. The scenario of no workable solution to the Palestine question is not a natural fact that we should accept or succumb to. In fact, we have a responsibility to ensure that the issues of occupation, settlements, and dispossession are discussed openly in Israeli society. Rather than hiding our identity and trying to benefit from the fact that these issues are not on the table, I think we have to make sure that these issues never disappear from the agenda. The UAL position, of shying away from politics in the noble sense, is not a sign of involvement in Israeli society or enhancement of the citizenship discourse. Rather, it is a sign of alienation from Israel Jewish society itself. The “Taking Care of Ourselves” argument, in fact, ends not only in disengagement from Palestinians in the West Bank, but from Israel itself. It is withdrawal into a politics of mere survival. This is a politics that disengages from other just causes and struggles in Israeli society and the world writ large, one that replaces principle-based struggles for rights with bargaining power in the coalition. This kind of politics is not one of engagement but of self-seclusion, where one gives up on potential strategic allies.

Beyond that, there are both historical and analytical reasons to believe that a political approach directed toward fair solutions to the issues of occupation, settlements, etc., has a better chance of establishing the principle of equal citizenship for Palestinians in Israel. There is something dubious about a full separation of the two tracks. The civic problem of the Palestinian citizens of Israel is not unrelated to their national problems, which themselves have a historical dimension. While it is true that one should not be a slave to history, neither should one turn one’s back on it and behave as if it does not exist. This denial feeds into the disempowerment of Israel’s Palestinian minority: an organized, cohesive community with its own institutions and history, one that seeks to conduct its own struggles with a wider vision about its role and its rights.

Evolution—not Revolution?

It is certainly true that every long journey starts with a single step. I do not subscribe to the Marxist view that all structural change must be abrupt, revolutionary, and in one sweeping movement. Deep structural changes can occur via evolution; reform can gradually lead to major structural transformation. But here, I want to argue that while there are specific steps that do lead to progress, it is also true that there are cases in which specific steps prevent further movement, thus hindering progress. Thus, the issue is not simply a juxtaposition of evolution against revolution. The issue is not that everything can be achieved in one sweeping move, while the UAL is suggesting steady progress, slow but accumulative and ongoing. This is a false dichotomy. I am all for evolution, as long as the first step does not lead to the impossibility of progress in the future, and as long as it aims to make deep structural change. But it seems to me that when it comes to the UAL, their first step is also their last step. The UAL is stripped of the vocabulary, the discourse, the historical depth, the allies, the ideology, the energy that would allow it to articulate its demands and continue its struggle. The step that it achieved was on the condition that it gives up its own language, the right to politics. If and when it returns to raise more structural demands, it will be perceived as betraying its own promises, as seeking to subvert the Jewish nature of the state. The UAL hides more than it can hide, and claims a level of innocence that it can’t sustain. In this way, it puts itself in the hands of the state as a hostage: it either makes more and more concessions, or is declared a radical Islamist nationalist movement opposed to the state’s existence. I think that the few months since it entered into the coalition have proven my argument.

The UAL should learn from the lessons of the PLO, the PA itself, and the Oslo accords. I opposed the Oslo accords at the time. Not because they would lead to a two-state solution, but rather the opposite: because I thought that the accords would not lead to that solution. But even more profoundly, I thought then that the Oslo accords and the withdrawal from the Palestinian city centers were, at the same time the first step and the last step: that this step will hinder steps in the future, and that the small concessions on Israel’s part will prevent bigger ones. I was against recognition of Israel as well, not because I am against this in principle, but because I thought that recognition must be mutual: the PLO’s recognition of Israel conditioned upon the latter recognizing the Palestinian right to self-determination and statehood, an end to the Occupation, and the dismantling of the settlements. The moment unconditional recognition by the PLO is granted, there would be no way to take it back. If the Palestinians had tried to do so, the PLO would have been stamped as radical and terrorist, unable to keep its own word and its promises: all agreements with it would be dismissed as unworthy. Within such a trap, the only thing left for the PA was to allow more and more concessions, to the point that it became clear that it simply became a branch of the Israeli civil administration in the Occupied Territories, no more and no less.  The PA has no more cards to play, no way to pressure Israel. It has become hostage to Israel.

With all of these issues, the UAL should learn from the experience of the PLO first, and then the PA. There are many things that will cease to be available if one does not secure them with a first move. I am afraid that this might be the case with the UAL. They accepted playing by the current rules; any change in in the UAL’s rhetoric in the future might be considered as stab in the back of the Israeli Jewish public. This was the case with the second Intifada, framed as Palestinian withdrawal from peace talks after Israel showed its good will by giving back some territory. I do not subscribe to the claim that Israel demonstrated good will in its actions; this, nevertheless, was the received wisdom within both local and international circles.  The UAL think that in the future, they will be able to raise issues that they are avoiding today. This is a mistake on their part, as today they are limiting the scope of what might be said, thought, or imagined in the future. They are enslaving themselves with their own discourse, a discourse that will be used against them in the future should they change its tone, language, demands, or rhetoric.

The Identity Politics Trap – from Direct to Indirect rule

But beyond, all that it seems to me that the UAL is leading Palestinian politics into a new mode, into a politics of identity that in fact constitutes a political trap. Both national and religious politics can be turned into the mere politics of identity: in a negative sense, in that politics becomes a site for the mere expression of a certain imagined identity, at the expense of issues of power, resources, ideas, and interests. While the politics of identity can have a liberating aspect, it also can easily turn into a tribal politics that involves cutting one’s group away from other groups in society, celebrating authenticity, demanding exceptions and exemptions from basic liberal norms in the name of a certain cultural particularity. A politics of identity can be liberating when it comes against the background of a liberal democracy that guarantees freedom and equality for all citizens. Identity comes as an additional aspect, above and beyond the individual equality that each citizen enjoys by right. But if a politics of difference is pursued within a state that does not guarantee equality, and does not take citizenship as the organizing principle of its political structure, then the discourse of difference and the politics of identity can easily turn into a politics of segregation and subjugation—in other words, into a form of an Apartheid regime. During my last visit to South Africa, I listened to speeches delivered by leaders of South Africa during the 1950s and 1960s. The language could be read as a manifesto for a multicultural society, one that respects difference and cherishes plurality. But beneath all that lay a tribal vision aimed at perpetuating racial differences, at continuing to foster segregation, and ensuring white supremacy.

There is enough evidence to suggest that Israel has passed, through the years, from direct control of the Palestinians (both in Israel and in the Occupied Territories) to indirect control, with all the problems that come with this. Up till 1987 and the eruption of the First Intifada, Israel sought to elevate the economic level of the Palestinians in the West Bank, to incorporate them into the state economically but at the same time keep them politically outside the domains of power. The first intifada brought Israeli leaders to the conclusion that instead of direct colonial rule in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel should find a local Palestinian sub-contractor to do the job for Israel. Israel will continue to control the land, border, water, and natural resources, while this sub-contractor controls the Palestinians themselves, with Israel keeping its hands clean.

My argument is that Israel, after 2000 and the Second Intifada but mainly under Netanyahu, has sought to apply some version of this model inside Israel itself, with the necessary changes stemming from the fact that Palestinians in Israel are citizens, and that the nature of subcontracting is subject to other kinds of constraints. Still, I want to argue that Israel is somehow “withdrawing” from citizenship itself, and wants to rule the Palestinians in Israel through some kind of indirect rule. In this regard, the rise of organized crime within Palestinian society is not due to a lack of policy, but rather a policy of lack, of “hands-off,” of indifference. Thus, the rhetoric of difference becomes a prelude to a politics of indifference. In order to find a suitable sub-contractor, Israel needs local agents with enough internal legitimacy and cultural hegemony. The UAL may be such a candidate; but only time will tell how far this strategy can go, and whether the UAL will be ready to play this role.

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