Israeli Islamist Party Redefines Being Part of the Coalition, but Not the Government
Posturing over state budget highlights Ra’am’s inexperience
With no single party ever commanding a majority in the legislature, Israel has always required coalitions to form its governments – coalitions that in the past shared loyalty to the ruling bloc’s main objectives.
This paradigm is being challenged by the Islamist Ra’am party, which made history last month by being the first Arab party to be part of an Israeli governing coalition.
While the diverse coalition of right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Arab parties holds 61 Knesset seats, the narrowest possible margin in the 120-member legislature, not every party wants to be a part of the cabinet.
For years, this occurred with Ashkenazi Haredi parties, whose lawmakers eschewed full ministerial posts because the government might make decisions that entailed violating the Sabbath, but instead preferring deputy ministerial posts. However, they still voted faithfully with the coalition.
“They were loyal players because they received their budget and their demands were met, Gayil Talshir, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Political Science Department, told The Media Line.
“Even though Ra’am’s main demands were met, they are still not loyal players for the coalition,” she continued, attributing this in part to the political inexperience of the party’s four members of Knesset.
“If you’re in the coalition, you’re supposed to vote with the coalition on votes of confidence and issues of principle, but Ra’am is not yet used to playing this parliamentary game,” Talshir said. “It has not yet grasped the concept and the behavior that comes with being part of the coalition.”
This coalition-of-the-unwilling puts Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in a difficult position.
“The coalition cannot conduct a new negotiation on each new piece of legislation about the conditions of Arab in Israel or something that is not relevant to the coalition’s management of itself,” Talshir said. “With a 61-member majority, this is a big problem. Ra’am is not yet a loyal team player in the coalition.”
The reluctance to go with the coalition’s flow has been a constant issue since the 24th Knesset entered office, from the first vote to form a government to the failure to extend the Family Unification Law regarding Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens, which expired on July 6.
This is also in evidence regarding the state budget: If it is not approved by November 4, the government will automatically fall and early elections will be held.
For the last few years, Israeli governments have been operating under versions of the 2019 budget that was passed in March 2018, rendering significant changes to existing programs impossible.
On July 18, Ra’am MK Walid Taha posted on Twitter that his party would no longer partake in any coalition activities, including the passage of any legislation.
The tweet came as Foreign Minister Yair Lapid met last week with members of the six-MK Joint List, a predominantly Arab party that is not part of the coalition, to try to secure support for the state budget.
Taha told The Media Line that he would not be responding to any questions until Sunday, after the Eid al-Adha holiday.
Talshir cautioned that talk by Ra’am of withholding support is premature and part of customary political posturing ahead of budget talks. However, she noted that Bennett is in a tough spot, as the traditional option of punishing coalition members who vote against the agenda risks losing power entirely.
“Bennett can’t vote to place sanctions on them because if they defect or vote against then the government falls. This is the delicate situation we are in,” she said.
“Until the budget passes, they are going to be gentle with Ra’am, because it is not exactly clear what it means to be in the coalition but not in the government,” Talshir added. “And they are very inexperienced players, so you give them the benefit of the doubt that they don’t yet know how to be a part of it.
“They can be more aggressive to disloyal team players in the coalition after the budget passes, when the chances of the government falling are much lower,” Talshir said.
Shmuel Sandler, president of Emuna Ephrata College in Jerusalem and professor emeritus of political science at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, also says it is early to take the threats of not passing the budget and leaving the coalition seriously. He believes Bennett will ultimately muster enough votes to pass the budget, barring an unforeseen event like a military conflict or domestic unrest.
“It is a coalition that came about opposing the other coalition, [Likud Chairman Binyamin] Netanyahu and the Haredi parties, and as long as they stick together, this coalition will stick together,” he told The Media Line. “This is not a question of how much they love each other, it’s a question of how much they are threatened by the counter-coalition.”
Sandler believes that ultimately, Bennett will gain some support from Ra’am for the budget, excluding the aforementioned caveats, because, like Bennett with the budget, Ra’am’s political future depends on achieving tangible gains for its voters.
“Ra’am wants to prove itself. … Its major test will be if it can deliver improvement in the situation of Israeli Arabs, especially the ones in the South,” he said. “It is also a question of survival for Ra’am itself.”