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After Election, Netanyahu Turns to Desperate Measures
(L-R) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on March 11, 2021 and Mansour Abbas, head of a conservative Islamic United Arab List, on March 23, 2021. (AFP via Getty Images)

After Election, Netanyahu Turns to Desperate Measures

Likud supporters split over cooperation with Arab list

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu finally broke his weeklong silence Wednesday evening, addressing the nation in his first public appearance since election night on March 23.

Gideon Sa’ar, Naftali Bennett, come home. … Let bygones be bygones

“Gideon Sa’ar, Naftali Bennett, come home,” Netanyahu called, imploring his political rivals – the heads of two right-wing parties who, prior to the elections promised to unseat the long-serving prime minister – to “let bygones be bygones” and form a government headed by him.

Yet many saw the desperate plea as merely another rhetorical trick, meant to allow Netanyahu to turn to an altogether different coalition.

The odds of both Bennett and Sa’ar, former colleagues turned foes of the prime minister, forgetting the bitter past and joining forces with Netanyahu are extremely low.

In lieu of a homogeneous right-wing government, consisting of Netanyahu’s Likud, Bennett’s Yamina, Sa’ar’s New Hope and the radical Religious Zionism parties, the prime minister has instead signaled his willingness to establish a government that would lean on a surprising new partner.

Mansour Abbas, head of the United Arab List, broke free of the predominantly Arab Joint List during the latest election cycle, refusing to commit to either of Israel’s pro-Netanyahu or anti-Netanyahu blocs.

Vowing only to care for Israel’s Arab minority, Abbas has pledged to support any coalition that would allocate the funds required to heal the community’s rising crime, unemployment and poverty rates, even a coalition made of mostly right-wing parties and headed by Netanyahu.

Unlike the Joint List, which refuses to sit with Netanyahu and accuses him of outright racism, Abbas, who netted four seats in last Tuesday’s elections, now serves as Israel’s kingmaker, able to hand the required 61-seat majority to either side.

Yet while the anti-Netanyahu coalition, headed by center-left candidate Yair Lapid, has in recent months reiterated its readiness to sit with parliament’s Arab representatives, Netanyahu himself repeatedly ruled out any such option.

“I will not form a government with the United Arab List, I will not lean on Abbas in any way, either by his support or abstention, to establish my next coalition,” Netanyahu insisted again and again during his interview blitz in the weeks leading up to Election Day.

Yet with the final results showing the pro-Netanyahu bloc unable to muster a government, Netanyahu’s Likud party quickly changed tunes.

“It is our duty to do everything to avoid a fifth election,” Likud MP Miki Zohar said last week. “We have to exhaust all political options to form a government.”

Tzachi Hanegbi, another Likud member close to Netanyahu, was blunter.

“It wasn’t our preference, but in our current situation, we definitely see Mansour Abbas as a potential [partner],” Hanegbi said.

Conscious of the extreme flip-flop, Netanyahu has since ordered his Likud MPs to remain silent, as negotiations over a coalition move forward.

These are people who sympathize with terrorists, who refuse to accept Israel as a Zionist state, whom the Likud itself asked to disqualify from contention in previous rounds. How could they possibly become our allies?

“No way, I won’t accept it,” Amir, a Likud voter from Jerusalem, told The Media Line of possible cooperation with Abbas’ party.

“These are people who sympathize with terrorists, who refuse to accept Israel as a Zionist state, whom the Likud itself asked to disqualify from contention in previous rounds. How could they possibly become our allies?”

Abbas’ United Arab List is the political wing of the Southern Branch of Israel’s Islamic movement, considered aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Zehava, another Jerusalemite who gave her vote for Netanyahu, was more open-minded.

“If they’re willing to let go of national aspirations and the Palestinian cause, and focus only on civilian issues like crime and social problems, then what’s the harm?” she asked.

When reminded that it was Netanyahu himself who condemned similar overtures to the Arab parties by Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party in the previous rounds, Zehava insisted there was a stark difference.

If it were a leftist coalition and the Arabs had a central role in it, then yes, that would be dangerous

“We’re talking about a right-wing government, with one small Arab party supporting it from the outside. There’s no danger of anything going wrong,” she assured The Media Line.

“If it were a leftist coalition and the Arabs had a central role in it, then yes, that would be dangerous.”

Last year, fearing that a coalition was forming between Blue and White and the Joint List, Netanyahu warned such an alliance would pose “an immediate existential threat to our country.”

Weeks before that, Netanyahu explained Arab lawmakers could not be partners to a government because “that was the will of the Zionist voters.”

The prime minister in past elections warned his supporters that “the Arab voters were arriving in mass numbers at the ballot boxes,” and a Facebook message sent from Netanyahu’s page said that Arab Israeli citizens would “slaughter our women and children.”

In a poll released Wednesday evening by Channel 13 News, 45% of those identifying as pro-Netanyahu voters – but not exclusively Likud supporters – approved of a hypothetical government headed by the incumbent and aided by Abbas.

A slightly smaller figure – 39% – opposed such a possibility.

“We haven’t been asked to poll such a question,” Rafi Smith, the Likud’s pollster in the recent election cycle, told The Media Line.

“It’s not something we’re testing among Likud voters, and I honestly couldn’t estimate what the response would be. It’s an interesting question.”

Still, the breathtaking about-face still has some hurdles.

Even with Abbas’ backing, which is anything but assured, Netanyahu would still require the support of Bennett, who could land the coveted prime minister’s office if he would instead elect to join the Anti-Netanyahu group of parties.

And then there is the Religious Zionism party, which Netanyahu also must have behind him, and whose head Betzalel Smotrich unequivocally ruled out any chance of joining a coalition aided by Abbas.

“Forget it… they’re not legitimate partners,” Smotrich wrote on Facebook last week. “It won’t happen, not on my watch. Period.”

On Monday, incidentally the same day on which Netanyahu’s corruption trial enters its evidentiary phase, the various parties will arrive at President Reuven Rivlin’s Jerusalem office to announce their recommended candidate for prime minister.

Rivlin will then nominate the politician with the highest chances of forming a viable coalition within one month.

“I’m telling you right now, if they do this, they’ve lost my vote. It’s ridiculous,” Avner, another Likud voter, told The Media Line on Thursday.

“They need Sa’ar and Bennett to come home and help establish a right-wing government, and if that doesn’t happen, then fifth elections are fine. But a minority government with [the United Arab List]? No way.”

The most important thing is keeping [Netanyahu] in office

Kobi, a Likud voter from Beersheba, had a different view.

“The most important thing is keeping [Netanyahu] in office,” he told The Media Line.

“He’s brought us the coronavirus vaccines, he’ll pull us out of the economic mess. I trust him. If he says Abbas is fine, then he’s fine by me.”

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