As Israel heads this fall into yet another election campaign, with the likelihood of yet another stalemate looming, one potential kingmaker is sitting on the sidelines eager to take part in the country’s next government.
The question is whether he will get the chance.
Mansour Abbas, the leader of a small Islamist party called Raam that made history last year by becoming the first independent Arab party to enter an Israeli governing coalition, says he would do so again if asked.
“The process has just begun,” he said in a recent interview, discussing his political ambitions and his experience helping the former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, now the caretaker leader, form a coalition with a razor-thin majority in 2021.
“We proved we can manage a country together,” Mr. Abbas said.
But many Jewish and Arab politicians now balk at the idea of Mr. Abbas acting as a linchpin of any future government, as debate rages in Israel over an Arab party joining another Israeli coalition.
Hailed by many as a model of national unity and healing, the Bennett government imploded after a year, and Mr. Abbas became a lightning rod for criticism from all sides.
He has drawn fire from Palestinians for accepting Israel as a de facto Jewish state and for rejecting accusations that it practices apartheid. Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, an alliance of predominantly Arab parties that sits in opposition in the Israeli Parliament, denounced Raam’s politicians as “pet Arabs.”
Right-wing Jews have attacked Mr. Abbas for alleged affiliations with Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza. But he has denied any connections to Hamas, and Yihye Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, has called him a traitor.
“There is still fear and suspicion on both sides,” Mr. Abbas said in the interview, speaking in a borrowed office at the headquarters of an Islamic charitable organization, the 48 Association, in Kafr Qassem, an Arab town in central Israel.
As a divided Israel prepares for its fifth election in under four years on Nov. 1, many polls have been predicting another impasse, with neither of the main contenders for the premiership — the conservative front-runner Benjamin Netanyahu or Mr. Lapid, his centrist rival — seen as being easily able to form a majority coalition.
Most pre-election polls predict that Raam will win the same four seats in November as it did last year, the minimum threshold for entering Parliament.
That could be enough for the party to play kingmaker again — if a future government were also willing to do business with Mr. Abbas, 48, who was a little-known Galilee dentist and imam before he entered national politics and shot to prominence with Raam in the last election.
The departing coalition is unlikely to regroup in the same format after the next election and in any case is far from gaining a majority, according to most polls, even including Raam’s four seats.
Mr. Netanyahu was the first to start negotiating with Mr. Abbas, ahead of the 2021 elections, but after that effort fell through, he and his Likud party demonized Mr. Abbas and Raam.
When a Likud lawmaker recently suggested that Raam could join a Netanyahu-led coalition if Likud managed to muster 61 seats in the 120-seat Parliament, making it less dependent on the Arab party, Mr. Netanyahu denied such a plan was afoot. Indeed, he denounced Raam as an “antisemitic, anti-Zionist party that supports terrorism and represents the Muslim Brothers who aspire to destroy Israel.”
Mr. Abbas said that Mr. Netanyahu’s comments were “disappointing” and derived from his “narrow political interests,” but he has not ruled out sitting in a Netanyahu-led coalition in the future. His primary purpose, Mr. Abbas said, would be to create “new politics” and a “brave partnership” in national decision-making and to help improve the lot of Israel’s Arab minority, which makes up a fifth of the population, from the inside.
“When you are dividing up the resources, deciding for our public, I want to sit in,” he said.
For decades, neither the predominantly Arab parties nor the Jewish parties were eager to join forces in Israeli governments. The Jewish parties were wary of relying on Arab partners for decisions pertaining to national security, and the Arab parties did not want to be held responsible for Israeli wars or for its occupation of the territories conquered by Israel in 1967.
Mr. Abbas took a middle way, joining the coalition after the 2021 election but not becoming a minister. Made up of eight ideologically diverse parties from the left and right, religious and secular, Jewish and Arab, the coalition was mainly bound by a desire to oust Mr. Netanyahu after 12 consecutive years in office and as he battles corruption charges in court.
Mr. Abbas cautions against rushing to characterize the experiment as a failure or a success.
“You can’t expect to solve all the problems in a few months,” he said. “A year ago, we were on the brink of civil war,” he added, referring to the spasm of violence that shook Israel in May 2021, an explosion of Arab resentment over decades of discrimination and racial tensions.
The coalition deal with Raam included a pledge of 30 billion shekels, about $9 billion, to fund a five-year plan to improve conditions in Arab society and to contend with the gun violence plaguing the community.
(Author: Isabel Kershner)/(c.2021 The New York Times Company)