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The narrow vote in Israel means that the Arab Islamist can elect the next prime minister

YERUSA ALE EM (AP) – After a brutal election, the Arab Islamist could elect the next Prime Minister of Israel.

You read that right.

Tuesday’s election left a razor-sharp difference between the right-wing coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “between the various groups of parties ousting him”.

To dominate, each side may need the support of the Arab Islamist Party, which seems to have won just five seats in the 120-member Knesset, but is not loyal to either, according to almost final results.

This means that the United Arab Emirates, known as the Hebrew Ra’am, can decide whether Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, will remain in office.

This is a strange situation for Netanyahu, who came to power by refusing to compromise with the Palestinians; he used racist rhetoric in previous campaigns to target the country’s Arab minority as a fifth column of terrorist sympathizers.

This time, however, in the fourth Israeli election in the last two years, Netanyahu sought Arab support, which many saw as a two-pronged strategy to split the United List, an alliance of Arab parties that won a record 15 seats in last year’s election.

If so, he succeeded in persuading the leader of the United Arab Emirates, Mansour Abbas, to launch a separate list. Now Abbas seems to be holding the key to the kingdom.

Israelis vote for party lists rather than individual candidates, and seats are distributed based on the percentage of votes received. No party has ever won a 61-seat majority, so larger parties must form governing coalitions, often with peripheral parties.

With about 88 percent of the vote, Netanyahu’s natural ally’s anti-government bloc each’s missing the Knesset’s 61-seat majority.

Until another party decides to take a stand, everyone will need Abbas’ support to form a government to avoid another round of elections.

Unlike other Arab leaders, Abbas has not ruled out collaborating with the Likud or other right-wing parties if he can make a profit for the increasingly discriminated Arab community, which is growing in poverty amid a wave of coronavirus and violent crime.

Arab parties have never asked for or been invited to serve in the Israeli government. Abbas could break that tradition by potentially seeking a cabinet post in exchange for his support. Most likely, he would not hold an official position, but instead would support outside the coalition government in exchange for more investment in housing, infrastructure and law enforcement agencies in Arab communities.

In an interview with Army Radio on Wednesday, Abbas reiterated that he did not rule out membership, and hinted at bolder ambitions. “We want to use not only parliamentary tools, but also government tools to do things for the benefit of the Arab society,” he said.

It can be difficult. Netanyahu’s coalition was to include the religious Zionist party, whose leading candidates are openly racist. It will be difficult to resolve the differences between Abbas’s far-right groups.

In a televised interview on Wednesday, Abbas said the religious Zionists “did not address” a political solution.

There is a possibility that right-wing leader Naftali Bennett, who is also imperfect, will back the alliance against Netanyahu. In that case, it could have abandoned the UAL if it had maintained support for a larger joint Arab list. Netanyahu can form a potential coalition without UAL if he persuades other members of the bloc to step down.

Abbas welcomes the Islamic Movement, which was founded in 1971 by the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood. Its main goal is the Islamization of the Arab society, which it pursues through a huge network of religious activities and charities.

The group split into two branches in 1996. On the issue of political participation.

The more radical northern branch, led by firefighter Raed Salah, has refused to take part in Israeli politics and is accused of having close ties to Hamas, a Palestinian militant group that has also split from the Muslim Brotherhood. Salah has been arrested on several occasions, but is now in prison after being convicted of inciting terrorism. In 2015, Israel outlawed its group, accusing it of inciting violence.

Abbas’s southern branch has taken a conciliatory stance on Israel, focusing more on socio-economic issues than on the conflict with the Palestinians. In the last election, it allied itself with secular left-wing Arab parties, but broke with them over issues of religious conservatism, such as the protection of LGBTQ rights.

Arabs make up about 20% of Israel’s 9.3 million population. They have citizenship, speak Hebrew fluently, are well-represented in medical professions, and in universities.

But they face widespread discrimination in housing and public services. In recent years, they have held regular protests condemning the violent crimes, accusing the Israeli authorities of not doing enough to protect their communities, accusations denied by the police.

Israeli Arab citizens have close family ties to the West Bank, to the Palestinians in Gaza, and are largely identified with the Palestinian cause. This has led many Israeli Jews to be skeptical of what Netanyahu’s other right-wing leaders have capitalized on in previous elections.

Ahead of the 2015 polls, Netanyahu was criticized for warning his supporters that Arabs were voting “by smell”. In 2019, he demanded the installation of surveillance cameras in polling stations in Arab regions, which critics say was an attempt to intimidate voters.

It remains to be seen whether those remarks will come back to haunt him.

Another victory will extend the 12 years of his rule, the longest in the history of Israel. Defeat was likely to end his political career, make him more vulnerable to persecution, and possibly to prison as corruption trials continued. Or the country could embark on another election campaign, delaying a two-year stalemate.

Abbas could decide which way to go.

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