Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett met Wednesday with Ra’am party chief Mansour Abbas in the first-ever political contact between the leaders of the two parties, amid ongoing efforts to form a government without Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Bennett’s right-wing party and Abbas’s Islamist faction have initiated unlikely cooperation lately in the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee, and the ties have gained steam as Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government nears its end.
Both parties are the only ones that in last month’s elections refused to back either Netanyahu’s right wing-religious bloc or the rival “change bloc” that seeks to oust him.
Ra’am said in a statement following the meeting at Bennett’s Knesset office that the discussion dealt with the positions of both parties regarding the current political events, and was “conducted in a positive atmosphere.”
An unnamed member of the “change bloc” was quoted by Channel 12 news as saying “significant progress” had been made in coalition talks over the previous day.
After meeting Abbas, Bennett reportedly met New Hope party chief Gideon Sa’ar, while the latter’s No. 2, Ze’ev Elkin, met Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid.
Religious Zionism party head Bezalel Smotrich assailed Bennett over his meeting with Abbas, whose party is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and rejects Zionism.
“A government with Abbas is like a government with Hamas,” said the far-right Smotrich.
Smotrich said Bennett would become an outcast on the right if he formed a government with Ra’am, the same way former premier Ariel Sharon was when he decided to evacuate Israel’s settlements from Gaza in 2005.
Smotrich has thwarted the option of Netanyahu himself relying on Ra’am to form a government, but the premier’s efforts to court Abbas’s support have lent his rivals greater public legitimacy to work with the Arab party, which has never been part of any government.
Just six days remain for Netanyahu to try and form a government before he is required to return the mandate to do so to President Reuven Rivlin.
On Monday, Bennett and Sa’ar expressed caution over ongoing negotiations to form a unity government, admitting that significant gaps remained between them and the centrist Yesh Atid party, but party leader Lapid insisted that they were still bridgeable.
While Bennett said he would be thrilled if Netanyahu managed to cobble together a coalition, Sa’ar maintained his position that he would not serve under the Likud leader and that the premier would have to step aside.
While admitting it wasn’t their ideal scenario, Bennett and Sa’ar both said that they were prepared to join a unity coalition with Yesh Atid and the left-leaning Labor and Meretz parties.
Insisting that a another election would be catastrophic for the economy, Lapid said that it would be possible to reach an agreement to form a unity government within a week or ten days. “We, for our part, will do everything,” he said.
Once the mandate is returned, Rivlin will have several options, including tasking the next lawmaker in line — opposition leader Lapid.
A Bennett-Lapid government would be based on a rotation of the premiership between Lapid and Bennett, according to Hebrew media reports. However, Bennett is said to be facing reluctance from within his own right-wing party to cooperate with Lapid, and some of his Yamina’s seven lawmakers may not agree to join such a coalition, Channel 12 news reported. That would further hamper Lapid’s efforts to build a viable coalition.
Should no government be formed, the country will head to its fifth election in two and a half years.