Ra’am set to deliver electoral slate in favor of joining next coalition

With most of the politicking completed behind the scenes, the decisions on Ra’am’s electoral list — to be made at a meeting of the Islamic Movement on Saturday — largely boil down to a dispute about just one seat.

In the idiosyncratic field of Israeli party primaries, Ra’am’s limited, internal contest on Saturday is just for the first four seats in its slate — of which three are unopposed returning Ra’am lawmakers: party chief Mansour Abbas, Walid Taha, and Iman Khatib-Yasin. The fifth seat is for an appointed Negev representative.

When the roughly 500 members of the general assembly of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement meet this weekend, they will be deciding on whether its key Negev seat will be filled by a loyalist to Abbas or the mayor of the south’s largest Bedouin city. The remainder of Ra’am’s slate for the November 1 election will be determined at a later date.

Favored candidate and Ra’am’s Knesset faction director, Waleed Alhawashla, worked hand-in-hand with Abbas to guide Ra’am through its first time in a government coalition over the past year, and is competing for the Negev-dedicated third slot against Rahat mayor Faiz Abu Sahiben. Abu Sahiben said the unsuccessful candidate will likely find himself placed into Ra’am’s fifth Knesset seat, possibly just shy of becoming a lawmaker.

Abu Sahiben told The Times of Israel that he is running to advocate for Bedouin interests.

“We want to get our rights,” he said.

Ra’am leader MK Mansour Abbas (C) delivers a statement to the press at the Knesset, with fellow party MKs Walid Taha (L) and Mazen Ghanaim (R) standing by, May 11, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Polling just around the electoral threshold of four seats, the Negev is a key area for Ra’am to conquer. Political analyst Ehab Jabareen estimated the area’s Arab voters can deliver up to two seats — although Jabareen thinks Ra’am will likely be battling for one.

Ra’am’s Negev success in the 2021 campaign was led in large part by the late Said al-Harumi, a well-respected Bedouin rights activist who entered Knesset last June on the slate he helped Ra’am to deliver, only to die of a heart attack in August.

“I believe that if something is good for the Bedouin, it’s good also for the other citizens of the Negev,” Abu Sahiben said, stressing that he believes in “cooperation” among the Negev’s communities.

When asked if his belief in cooperation extends to all Knesset parties as potential coalition partners, Abu Sahiben added that he would sit with any party that would respect his agenda.

“I don’t disqualify anyone, but anyone who disqualifies me, I disqualify him,” the Rahat mayor said. “Whoever says I don’t have the right to live in the Negev, I disqualify.”

Many of the Negev’s Bedouin citizens live in unrecognized villages, not hooked up to municipal services or the power grid. Part of Ra’am’s promise to its voters was to work to legalize some of these towns; it only managed to do so for three in the coalition agreement.

Waleed Alhawashla. (Courtesy)

While many parties in the right-religious bloc led by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu are against expanding recognized Bedouin settlement, Abu Sahiben said that he would support sitting under a Netanyahu-led government that agreed to protect Ra’am’s interests.

“If Netanyahu would give us our requests, then we have no problem going with such a government,” he said.

Wadi’a Awawdeh, political analyst for Arabic language Radio Nas, said that “it’s known that [Abu Sahiben] is a pragmatist,” which he defined as an Arab politician who will cooperate with mainstream Israeli politics if it will serve his interests.

“In his political views, he’s closer to Mansour,” Awawdeh added.

Led by a bold vision from Abbas, Ra’am broke with tradition to become the first independent Arab party to join an Israeli coalition last year.

While Abbas and his supporters claim the past year was only the beginning of a “process” requiring more time to deliver tangible results, little movement has been made on key Arab voter issues, including reducing crime in Arab towns and finding a solution for unpermitted home construction in Arab localities, including the Negev.

“Ra’am can’t return to the opposition benches. If they return to opposition benches, then the experiment failed. Because then the Joint List” — a majority Arab faction that eschews coalitions until Palestinian national aspirations and full equality are achieved — “will say, ‘we told you so,’” said Jabareen.

Ehab Jabareen, political analyst. (Courtesy)

Ra’am previously ran under the Joint List’s electoral slate and later with one of its constituent parties, but broke off and competed for votes independently in advance of the 2021 elections.

Although Abbas endeavored to make Ra’am a reliable coalition partner, joining hands with an eclectic mix of eight parties across the political spectrum took its ideological toll. Turn-of-the-year Bedouin riots over perceived land grabs by the state in the Negev, as well as clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police on the Temple Mount during Ramadan, led to Ra’am’s threatened and actual coalition timeouts.

Ra’am also faced challenges from within its slate. The party integrated political outsider and former Sakhnin mayor Mazen Ghanaim into its Knesset slate last year, but was unable to enforce coalition discipline on the lawmaker when confronted with ideologically difficult scenarios related to security and Palestinians. Ghanaim’s refusal to vote with the coalition in May and June was a contributing factor to the patchwork of discord leading to the coalition’s June collapse and snap election.

By stacking the deck with politicians familiar with the compromises necessary to navigate coalition politics, and especially those tested throughout the past rocky year of the coalition, Ra’am will be better positioned to sell itself as a reliable coalition partner.

Alhawashla said that Abbas does not interfere with primary politicking, but declined to comment on why he entered the race for the Knesset slate.

Since the current election was announced, several right-wing candidates and parties have said they would not rely on Ra’am to make up the 61 seats in a narrow coalition, but some have left the possibility of sitting with the party in a broader constellation vague. In July, Likud lawmaker David Amsalem was internally attacked for saying he would sit with Ra’am in a broad coalition.

Likud is currently running on a campaign narrative that a vote for the center-left is a vote for Abbas, appealing to a right-wing public that is concerned by the outsized influence that an Islamic party may have over a coalition if it could hold it hostage for key votes.

Balad, one of the Joint List’s constituent parties and holding one seat in the current Knesset, will also hold a primary on Saturday.