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Ra'am urges halt to 'discriminatory' arrests over riots

Eyeing ‘change government,’ would-be partners up pressure on holdout Bennett

Yesh Atid reaches understandings with center-left parties, but Yamina is currently only negotiating with Netanyahu; TV airs alleged Bennett-Lapid deal from before Gaza flare-up

Yamina chief Naftali Bennett speaks during a press conference at the Knesset on May 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yamina chief Naftali Bennett speaks during a press conference at the Knesset on May 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Senior officials in the bloc of Knesset parties opposing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were quoted Tuesday evening as saying a government had been nearly formed after the Yesh Atid party reached understandings with other opposition factions, though it is waiting for Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett.

Bennett has refused to commit to either the pro- or anti-Netanyahu blocs, keeping his options open. He has vowed to do “everything” to prevent the country from going to its fifth election in two and a half years.

However, the right-wing leader is widely seen as unlikely to join the so-called “change bloc” to form a right-center-left government ousting the incumbent premier, even though a deal would see him appointed prime minister. If Bennett does get on board, Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope will join as well, putting the government within reach of a majority if either one of the majority-Arab Joint List or Ra’am parties give their backing.

“The government is almost finalized, we are waiting for Bennett,” an unnamed official told Channel 13 news, after Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid came to an agreement with the Blue and White, Labor, Meretz and Yisrael Beytenu parties.

Yesh Atid party chief Yair Lapid leads a faction meeting at the Knesset on May 24, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The understandings have included handing out potential ministerial and other roles to members of the various parties, as well as agreements on policy. No official coalition deals have been signed.

Meretz MK Issawi Frej told Army Radio Wednesday that the understandings were primarily aimed at turning the heat up on Bennett.

“We want to pressure Bennett to decide whether he wants to be part of a change government or fifth elections,” Frej said. “For almost 50 days he has taken a step backward, then a step forward. Make a decision. A leader needs to be courageous and tell their voters the truth.”

Bennett and Lapid had reportedly already finalized the terms for a coalition several weeks ago, but then the military operation in Gaza began, prompting the Yamina leader to say a “change government” that would include the Islamist Ra’am party was “off the table.”

On Tuesday, Channel 12 news published what it said was the near-final agreement between Bennett and Lapid. It said they had agreed to set a two-term, eight-year limit on the prime minister, to pass a law regulating ultra-Orthodox enlistment to the army, and to seek peace with the Palestinians while avoiding unilateral moves.

The report said the parties agreed to take care of matters including Jewish conversions, a pluralistic prayer plaza at the Western Wall and kosher-supervision authorities.

Yamina insisted, though, that the published draft deal was “fictitious,” saying the party refused to pass laws that would hamper Netanyahu’s continued rule and hadn’t sign any agreement on the Western Wall.

In this November 24, 2019 photo, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit an Israeli army base in the Golan Heights, on the Israeli-Syrian border. (Atef Safadi/Pool via AP, File)

Bennett is officially only negotiating currently with Netanyahu, who has offered a merger between his Likud party and Yamina in potential upcoming elections.

However, there has been no progress on that front, and Channel 13 quoted Likud officials as being angry at Bennett for refusing the offer. Netanyahu has reportedly promised he can bring defector MKs from other parties if Bennett publicly declares his support for the premier.

But Channel 12 reported Wednesday that even some ministers and lawmakers from Likud were considering opposing a merger with Yamina, or only supporting it if a Netanyahu-led government is formed, because such a move would come at the expense of Likud backbenchers’ political standing.

Netanyahu left Yamina out of his power-sharing government with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White after the previous election in 2020, sending the party to the opposition, and refused to heed Bennett’s advice on managing and containing the coronavirus pandemic.

According to Lapid’s understandings with the various parties, the potential government would include some 25 ministers, far fewer than the previous government’s 34 but still significantly higher than the 18 he had promised.

Such a government envisions Bennett as prime minister — later replaced by Lapid — with Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked as interior minister and Matan Kahana as religious affairs minister. New Hope’s leader, Sa’ar, would be appointed justice minister, its MK Yifat Shasha-Biton would be education minister, and the party’s Yoaz Hendel would also be a minister.

Lapid himself would be foreign minister and alternate prime minister — the new role currently filled by Gantz. Yesh Atid would get three more ministries, and its MK Meir Cohen would be Knesset speaker.

Blue and White would get the defense portfolio in addition to either immigrant absorption or welfare, and either culture or agriculture. Those roles would be filled — in order — by Gantz, Chili Tropper and Alon Schuster.

Labor leader Merav Michaeli would become transportation minister, MK Omer Bar-Lev would be public security minister and the party would get another ministerial position. Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz would get the health portfolio, with MK Tamar Zandberg as environmental protection minister and Frej as regional cooperation minister.

Yisrael Beytenu would have control over the country’s treasury, with Avigdor Liberman serving as finance minister and another lawmaker heading the Knesset’s Finance Committee. MK Oded Forer would be minister for the development of the Negev and the Galilee, while another party MK would get either immigrant absorption or welfare.

Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am party, leads a faction meeting, in the Israeli parliament on April 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ra’am is reportedly willing to join such a government if a majority becomes viable. It won’t demand ministry portfolios and will be content with government funding for Arab communities and causes, as well as the positions of deputy Knesset speaker and chairperson of a Knesset committee.

Meanwhile, Ra’am published a letter it sent to Netanyahu, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, demanding an immediate halt to a campaign of arrests of young Arab men suspected of taking part in widespread riots in Jewish-Arab cities.

The past weeks saw escalating ethnic tensions between Jews and Arabs inside Israeli cities alongside the armed conflict with Gaza terror groups. Lod suffered the worst rioting, with two people, one Arab and one Jewish, killed in separate incidents and dozens injured, many of them seriously.

Ra’am argued that the arrests were discriminatory since the vast majority of detainees have been Arab and all but two of the indictments filed have been against Arabs.

“Even though hundreds of Jews rioted, assaulted people and went around with weapons and grenades, police have done nothing against them and chosen to take a tough stance only against Arabs,” said Mansour Abbas’s party, arguing that some detainees haven’t had any evidence presented against them to link them to the violence.

The party claimed Arab Israelis are “an indigenous group that is eligible for special protection according to international law.”

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