‘Change bloc,’ Ra’am said hopeful coalition talks can resume after fighting ends

Likud leaders who once backed a coalition propped up by the Islamist party now urge Lapid and Bennett to avoid ‘extremist Islamist faction’

Mansour Abbas of Ra'am (left) meets with Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, April 19, 2021 (Courtesy)
Mansour Abbas of Ra'am (left) meets with Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, April 19, 2021 (Courtesy)

Coalition talks on forming Israel’s next government remained frozen Tuesday as the Islamist Ra’am party refused to continue negotiations amid escalating Arab-Jewish violence within Israel and the escalating rocket barrages from Gaza. But sources within the political parties opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Hebrew media they hoped the talks would resume when the violence subsides.

Ra’am announced Monday it had suspended coalition talks with the so-called “change bloc,” potentially dooming efforts by the parties to form a government that removes the longtime premier from office.

A Ra’am source told the Kan public broadcaster that it was unclear if the party would again hold talks with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid — who is currently tasked with forming a government — before his mandate to assemble a coalition ends on June 2, as the resumption of negotiations would depend on the scope of the violence.

Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip fired barrages of rockets toward Jerusalem and southern Israeli border communities on Monday and Tuesday, killing two Israelis and injuring 28.

Likud officials, who had sought a coalition with Ra’am only a week earlier, came out against the idea on Tuesday, and urged all right-wing parties, including those opposed to Netanyahu, to unite in a coalition to handle the current crisis.

Finance Minister Israel Katz at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Medical Center on December 20, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“All sides must stop the wooing of the Islamist slate [Ra’am] to form their government,” Finance Minister Israel Katz of Likud wrote on Facebook. “No government in Israel can be dependent on an extremist Islamist faction that denies Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state,” he wrote.

He also alleged that the violent mobs that attacked Jewish homes in Arab-Jewish cities were “incited by supporters of the Islamic Movement” that forms part of Ra’am’s base of support.

While Likud sought to use the situation to pry right-wing anti-Netanyahu parties Yamina and New Hope out of any anti-Netanyahu coalition, sources from those parties noted that more than three weeks remain of the negotiations window, and insisted Tuesday the talks could go ahead if the violence ends quickly.

Unnamed officials close to Ra’am reportedly told Hebrew-language media that Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas shared that view.

Meanwhile, the Netanyahu government faced growing criticism Tuesday from local leaders of councils hard-hit by Hamas rocket fire.

Rockets are launched from Gaza Strip towards Israel, May 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

Ofir Libstein, head of the Shaar Hanegev Regional Council, told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily on Tuesday, “The anger is great, and it’s directed at the Israeli government, and the prime minister….We’ve been in this situation for 20 years now. We expect and hope for change, not a 24-hour campaign, or 48 hours of hammering each other and then going right back to the same situation, but that this [military] campaign changes the reality for a long time.”

While several local leaders echoed Libstein’s calls for a decisive campaign, lawmakers on the left insisted only a peace initiative would end the recurring bouts of fighting.

“In order to not return again and again to the same situation, as we have throughout the past decade, we have to understand that only a comprehensive settlement, or at least interim steps toward an arrangement, can bring security for all,” Meretz party chairman MK Nitzan Horowitz said Tuesday.

“And yes,” he added, “we have to form a new government, and quickly.”

A Channel 13 report on Monday claimed a new coalition had been all but finalized when the violence escalated. Yair Lapid and Yamina chief Naftali Bennett had reportedly intended to tell President Reuven Rivlin on Monday night that they had managed to muster a coalition, which would have relied on support from Ra’am for its majority, and that it could be sworn in next week.

Yamina party head Naftali Bennett gives a press conference at the Knesset on May 5, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Channel 12 reported that almost all ministerial appointments in the putative Bennett-Lapid coalition had been agreed upon by the various parties. These included Bennett as prime minister with Lapid as alternate prime minister and foreign minister (with Lapid to later take his turn as premier under a rotation deal); Benny Gantz as defense minister; Avigdor Liberman as finance minister; Ayelet Shaked as interior minister; Gideon Sa’ar as justice minister; Merav Michaeli as transportation minister, and Nitzan Horowitz as health minister.

Ra’am leader Abbas was scheduled to meet with Lapid and Bennett on Monday afternoon, but the meeting was delayed, apparently due to the major clashes that broke out in the morning between Palestinian rioters and police on the Temple Mount — clashes followed hours later by the rocket barrages from Gaza.

Lapid, Bennett and other “change bloc” lawmakers, meanwhile, backed a forceful response to the Gaza rocket fire on Monday.

Palestinians terrorists fire rockets from Gaza City toward Israel on May 10, 2021. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

“No country can allow citizens to live under the threat of terror,” Lapid tweeted. “Israel must act resolutely and forcefully to restore deterrence.”

Lapid also vowed to back the Netanyahu-led transition government “in the war against Israel’s enemies.”

Bennett called for Israel to respond with an “iron fist.”

“Whoever puts Israelis into shelters needs to know he will regret this,” Bennett wrote on Twitter. “We’ll back a determined response by the Israeli government.”

Yamina No. 2 Shaked linked the rocket fire from Gaza to the government’s response to recent violence on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City.

“Those who surrender on the Temple Mount in the first campaign will get rockets on Jerusalem in the second campaign. It’s either firmness or weakness,” she wrote on Twitter.

Palestinians place Hamas flags atop al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 10, 2021. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

New Hope chief Gideon Sa’ar, who is also in negotiations with Lapid and Bennett, similarly issued a tweet calling for a strong response to “Hamas aggression,” referring to the Gaza-ruling terror organization.

“We’ll back decisions of the government that will lead to this,” he said.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Liberman, who resigned as Netanyahu’s defense minister in 2018 to protest what he said was an insufficiently forceful response to rocket fire from Gaza, tore into the prime minister.

“Once again, it has been proven that Netanyahu’s resolution policy is language whitewashing a policy of surrendering to terror that brings painful consequences,” Liberman wrote on Twitter, referring to the efforts to reach a long-term ceasefire with Hamas.

He added: “Now we must focus on restoring security to the State of Israel and putting the issue at the top of the agenda.”

Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar appeared to imply that Netanyahu, who is fighting for his political and legal survival, had an interest in the escalating violence and called on Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to declare the premier no longer fit to remain in office.

“The man is a pyromaniac. He is not fit and not in control of the situation,” Avidar said.

Palestinian terrorists fire rockets from the Gaza Strip toward Israel, May 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Among Netanyahu’s supporters, Likud MK Miki Zohar suggested the premier’s rivals were to blame for trying to form a unity government after the prime minister again failed to assemble a narrow right-wing coalition, after a fourth election in two years.

“I’m concerned that the political chaos in Israel, along with the progress on forming a left-wing government with the support or abstention of the [majority Arab] Joint List, is allowing our enemies to lift their heads. I hope Bennett will understand the destruction he is leading us to,” Zohar told Army Radio.

He did not mention the Likud-led right-wing religious bloc’s own unsuccessful efforts to enlist the Islamist Ra’am party, which both sides have courted to secure majority support for their prospective coalitions.

Zohar also claimed a ground operation in Gaza was not a question of “if,” but “when.”

Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich, whose far-right party’s opposition to relying on Ra’am blocked Netanyahu from forming such a government, issued a fresh appeal to Bennett and Sa’ar to join forces with the premier’s bloc.

“Put everything aside and let’s form an emergency government of the national camp today. Everything else can wait,” Smotrich tweeted.

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