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In Israeli Election, a Chance for Arabs to Gain Influence, or Lose It

KAFR KANNA, Israel — Mansour Abbas, a conservative Muslim, is an unlikely political partner for the leaders of the Jewish state.

He is a proponent of political Islam. He heads an Arab party descended from the same religious stream that spawned the militant Hamas movement. And for most of his political life, he never considered supporting the right-leaning parties that have led Israel for most of the past four decades.

Yet if Mr. Abbas has his way, he could help decide the next Israeli prime minister after next month’s general election, even if it means returning a right-wing alliance to power. Tired of the peripheral role traditionally played by Israel’s Arab parties, he hopes his small Islamist group, Raam, will hold the balance of power after the election and prove an unavoidable partner for any Jewish leader seeking to form a coalition.

“We can work with anyone,” Mr. Abbas said in an interview on the campaign trail in Kafr Kanna, a small Arab town in northern Israel on the site where the Christian Bible says Jesus turned water into wine. In the past, “Arab politicians have been onlookers in the political process in Israel,” he said. Now, he added, “Arabs are looking for a real role in Israeli politics.”

Mr. Abbas’s shift is part of a wider transformation occurring within the Arab political world in Israel.

Accelerated by the election campaign, two trends are converging: On the one hand, Arab politicians and voters increasingly believe that to improve the lives of Arabs in Israel, they need to seek power within the system instead of exerting pressure from the outside. Separately, mainstream Israeli parties are realizing they need to attract Arab voters to win a very close election — and some are willing to work with Arab parties as potential coalition partners.

Both trends are born more of political pragmatism than dogma. And while the moment has the potential to give Arab voters real power, it could backfire: Mr. Abbas’s actions will split the Arab vote, as will the overtures from Jewish-led parties, and both factors might lower the numbers of Arab lawmakers in the next Parliament.

But after a strong showing in the last election, in which Arab parties won a record 15 seats, becoming the third-largest alliance in the 120-seat Parliament, and were still locked out of the governing coalition, some are looking for other options.

“After more than a decade with Netanyahu in power, some Arab politicians have put forward a new approach: If you can’t beat him, join him,” said Mohammad Magadli, a well-known Arab television host. “This approach is bold, but it is also very dangerous.”

Palestinian citizens of Israel form more than a fifth of the Israeli population. Since the founding of the state in 1948, they have always sent a handful of Arab lawmakers to Parliament. But those lawmakers have always struggled to make an impact.

Jewish leaders have not seen Arab parties as acceptable coalition partners — some on the right vilifying them as enemies of the state and seeking the suspension of Arab lawmakers from Parliament. For their part, Arab parties have generally been more comfortable in opposition, lending infrequent support only to center-left parties whose influence has waned since the start of the century.

In some ways, this dynamic worsened in recent years. In 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited the threat of relatively high Arab turnout — “Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations,” he warned on Election Day — to scare his base into voting. In 2018, his government passed new legislation that downgraded the status of Arabic and formally described Israel as the nation-state of only the Jewish people. And in 2020, even his centrist rival, Benny Gantz, refused to…

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