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Abbas: Talking with Netanyahu first legitimized Ra’am across political spectrum

Report says Likud leader this week offered similar or better promises to Islamist party leader than those he got from ‘change bloc’

Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas speaks to the Kan public broadcaster during an interview from his home in the northern town of Maghar on June 3, 2021. (Screen capture: YouTube)
Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas speaks to the Kan public broadcaster during an interview from his home in the northern town of Maghar on June 3, 2021. (Screen capture: YouTube)

A day after his Islamist party agreed to join the coalition of parties backing the “change government,” Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas said Thursday that he had preferred to conduct his initial negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, enabling him to gain legitimacy not only on the right, but among the center and left that are now positioned to unseat Israel’s longest-serving premier with his help.

Ra’am, a local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood movement whose charter calls Zionism “racist” and backs a right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants, has never been part of a governing coalition.

But in recent months, Abbas took major steps toward recognition from mainstream Israeli parties, softening his rhetoric and conducting extensive negotiations over political cooperation with Netanyahu’s Likud. However, after the premier’s far-right ally Bezalel Smotrich vetoed a Ra’am-backed right-wing government, Abbas went on to sign an unprecedented coalition deal with the “change bloc.”

“It was more perfect to take this step with the full-blown right — because in these matters, when you do the process with the right you also get the center and the left,” Abbas told the Kan public broadcaster, adding his move led to “recognition in the entire political and social spectrum in Israel.”

In an interview at his home in the northern town of Maghar, Abbas said the relations with his new partners, “particularly Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett… developed well, positively, as well as an understanding of the needs of each side.”

“There were ups and downs and at a certain stage Naftali Bennett was in the direction of a right-wing government, but afterward he went back and again the change government was back on the table,” Abbas said.

A photo montage shows the leaders of parties in the prospective “change government” that Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid announced he can form on June 2, 2021. (Flash90)

“This fluidity of views without a doubt made me a little suspicious, but because you are in near-daily contact and are talking and sharing views with each other about the uncertainties or difficulties that each [leader] has in his party, that increases trust and allows you to make a decision,” he said.

The moment of signing the coalition agreement was very touching, Abbas said, adding that “some people even shed a tear.”

If the emerging government is sworn in, Israel will have a new prime minister for the first time since 2009. Naftali Bennett will serve as premier until September 2023, when he will be replaced by Yair Lapid.

Along with the over 12 consecutive years he has served as premier since then, Netanyahu was also prime minister for three years in the late 1990s.

“Although we did not get everything we wanted, we got quite a lot of things,” Abbas said, referring to currently unreleased coalition agreements, which Ra’am says includes over NIS 53 billion ($16.3 billion) in budgets and government development plans for Arab society, legalization of three Bedouin unrecognized villages, and an amendment to the controversial 2017 Kaminitz law, which targets illegal Arab construction.

Those same promises, and perhaps more, were offered by Netanyahu as well, according to Ra’am. In a Wednesday phone call, shortly before Yair Lapid’s mandate to form a government was about to expire, Netanyahu told Abbas that he was the only one that can bring about genuine change in the treatment of the community.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wearing a face mask due to the coronavirus outbreak, seen in the plenum hall of the Knesset, in Jerusalem, June 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“I am the only one that can open a new page with the Arab society. You can only do this with me. My status and the fact that my government will be right-wing will allow me to do things that they will not be able to afford to do,” Netanyahu told the Ra’am leader, according to Channel 12 news.

The Likud party confirmed to the network that the premier had spoken to Abbas, but denied making any specific promises.

A few hours later, Abbas signed an agreement joining the “change government” that aims to oust Netanyahu.

Questions remain, however, over whether the coalition can hold together, as the final coalition agreements have yet to be formally released and negotiations are expected to continue until the swearing-in. Likud is also intensifying its pressure on members of the right-wing Yamina and New Hope parties to jump ship and sink the emerging coalition’s majority.

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