In February 1989, something dramatic happened in the Arab street. In the municipal elections, the Communist party Maki (which eventually became Hadash) lost its leading status in several Arab cities and towns in Israel. Particularly stinging was the communists’ defeat in Umm el-Fahm, which fell to the Islamic Movement in Israel and its leader, Raed Salah, who was also elected mayor.
Maki was led at the time by Meir Vilner, a signatory to Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence. But the party was perceived by the Israeli public, justifiably, as a champion of Arab national identity and even Palestinian identity among the country’s Arab citizens, and it comes as no surprise that its defeat engendered considerable satisfaction. Many saw it as a positive turning point in the state’s relationship with its Arab citizens. Only the interior minister at the time, Aryeh Deri—who incidentally holds the same portfolio today—warned we would eventually come to miss the communists.
Indeed, Raed Salah eventually found himself in an Israeli prison and his movement, the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, was outlawed. Salah and his cohort were responsible for fanning the flames behind the Second Intifada, incessantly inciting against Israel and accusing it of harming holy Muslim sites in Jerusalem.
In Judea and Samaria, and in the Gaza Strip as well, where Israel was contending with PLO terrorism, Israel had hoped the Islamic Movement, which began working in those areas, would represent a positive change. Unlike the PLO, the Islamic Movement’s activists refrained from clashing with Israel and focused instead on social and religious activities. They channeled their energies towards fighting their enemies at home, the PLO and setting fire to movie theaters accused of showing immodest films or destroying cafes for selling alcohol. In 1987, however, the Islamic tiger changed its proverbial stripes, giving birth to the Hamas terrorist organization that launched a jihad against Israel and carried out a string of suicide bombings.
We can understand why Israel underestimated the Islamic Movement in its early stages. Islamic movements everywhere work in two phases. In the first, they target hearts and minds through sermons, while focusing on social action and welfare. Only then do they begin the second phase, which includes violent holy war (jihad). Ergo, it is prudent to approach any inkling of political Islam with suspicion and caution, even if its path is initially benign. In the majority of Arab countries, it should be noted, any form of Islam-based political organization is prohibited, and the rulers of these countries persecute such movements as threats to their stability.
Meanwhile, contrary to the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, its Southern Branch, which is represented in the Knesset by the Mansour Abbas-led Ra’am Party, is moderate and eschews incitement to violence. The party’s willingness to cooperate with the government indicates a pragmatic approach that distinguishes it from the other parties comprising the Joint Arab List faction, which continues to prioritize the Palestinian question over solving the problems facing Israel’s Arab citizens.
The right has reveled in this new friendship as it provides a type of bypass route to the Arab electorate, but it is elegantly ignoring, against everything it has preached in the past, the ramifications of joining forces with an Islamic movement presently displaying moderation—despite its desire to imbue the Arab street in Israel with Islam. We mustn’t forego the aspiration for a civil movement that improves the lives of Arab Israelis, not just in terms of their relationship with the state but also within Arab society itself.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.