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Lapid: Vote a 'small step' en route to a 'unity government'

In blow to Netanyahu, Ra’am gives Lapid’s bloc control of key Knesset panel

In last-minute ploy, Arab MKs reject PM’s proposal for Arrangements Committee; Ra’am leader Abbas says move due to incitement from Netanyahu’s far-right allies

Screen capture from video of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 19, 2021. (Kan)
Screen capture from video of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 19, 2021. (Kan)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s suffered a stinging defeat in the Knesset on Monday with potentially far-reaching implications when his Likud party’s proposal for the makeup of a key parliamentary committee was rejected in favor of that of the opposition.

The vote on the Arrangements Committee took a dramatic turn when lawmakers from Ra’am, an Islamist Arab party, burst into the plenum at the last moment to vote against the Likud proposal and give their backing to an alternative plan pushed by the bloc led by MK Yair Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party.

The Arrangements Committee, the first Knesset committee to be formed after an election, controls the legislative agenda in the new parliament until a new government is formed. This includes determining what other parliamentary committees will be formed and who will serve on them. With an ongoing political deadlock complicating the formation of a coalition, the influence of the Arrangements Committee could be amplified.

With the Lapid-backed proposal ultimately being approved, the Arrangements Committee will have 33 MKs: 16 from the bloc of parties that want to oust Netanyahu, 14 from the block led by Netanyahu, one for Ra’am and two for the Yamina party, which has pledged to work for a Netanyahu government as long as he has the mandate.

Lapid tweeted later that his bloc’s success in the vote, and Netanyahu’s failure, “is another small step on the way to an Israeli unity government.”

Abbas decided not to back Likud after learning of a last-minute agreement with the Yamina party that would give it an extra seat on the committee in return for its support for the proposal, according to multiple Hebrew media reports. Abbas, however, later said he was driven away from Likud due to attacks from its far-right allies in the Religious Zionism party, which accuses Ra’am’s lawmakers of being anti-Zionist and of backing Palestinian terrorism.

Lapid had met earlier with the Ra’am leader in the Knesset and sources told the Times of Israel that the two discussed cooperation not just on the committee vote, but also on other future Knesset activities that would become relevant after the establishment of the Arrangements Committee.

Lapid promised Abbas the role of deputy Knesset speaker, that Ra’am would have a seat on the powerful Knesset Finance Committee, and that Ra’am would head a planned committee for reducing violence in the Arab community, the sources said.

Abbas later told Channel 12 that his party had demonstrated that “we are not in anybody’s pocket.”

“We want to maintain our political power for the [Arab] community,” he said.

Abbas said that Yamina’s two seats on the panel were only part of his decision-making process and that “incitement” from Religious Zionism was also a major factor, reiterating remarks he had made earlier in the day at a Ra’am faction meeting.

“Anyone who invalidates us, of course, we will invalidate them,” Abbas told the station and called on Religious Zionist leader Bezalel Smotrich, who has ruled out joining a coalition backed by Ra’am, to retract his accusations against the party.

Despite voting against the premier, Abbas did not rule out backing a Netanyahu-led coalition, while stressing that he will only support a government if the members of that coalition are in agreement on his party’s support.

“This is unrelated to the next step, this is unrelated to the establishment of the government,” he said. “We are still saying… all of the options are on the table, whoever accommodates us, we’ll accommodate them.”

When the Arrangements Committee vote came up in the plenum Monday afternoon, the four Ra’am lawmakers pretended to abstain by leaving the hall, but then returned as the roll call for the final vote on the bill was being made, at which point they rejected it.

The proposal was defeated by 60 votes against with 58 in favor.

Ra’am MKs remained in plenum to vote in favor of Lapid’s competing proposal which passed with 60 in favor and 51 against.

In the moments after the Likud plan was defeated, MK Gideon Sa’ar, a former Likud minister who left to start his own New Hope party with the declared intention of ousting Netanyahu, was caught on Knesset cameras winking at someone else in the plenum. The Kan public broadcaster said the wink appeared to directed at Finance Minister Israel Katz, a Likud member who has been touted as a possible successor to Netanyahu.

 

After the Knesset vote Yesh Atid faction leader MK Meir Cohen, who had submitted the opposition’s proposal for the committee’s makeup, lauded the outcome.

“I am happy we got to this point — the establishment of the Arrangements Committee — that will ensure ongoing activities of the Knesset in the best way to reflect the balance of forces in the Knesset as determined by the voters,” he said.

Opposition lawmakers quickly began working to take advantage of the development, with Lapid holding talks with Labor party leader MK Merav Michaeli.

Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid, left, with Labor party leader MK Merav Michaeli in the Knesset, April 19, 2021. (Yesh Atid)

Sources said the two discussed steps that can be taken to maximize the victory of the so-called change bloc in the vote on the Arrangements Committee and the steps needed to create a government.

In the wake of the vote, Michaeli tweeted, “There are lawmakers in Jerusalem.”

Religious Zionism leader Smotrich responded to the developments by retweeting remarks from his party’s MK Orit Strock, who wrote that what had happened showed “how unacceptable it would be to have a coalition relying on Ra’am.”

“Q.E.D. And the truth is, it is lucky that this happened now and we will all sober up and not in the middle of” a military campaign, Smotrich wrote.

MK Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose extreme-right Otzma Yehudit is part of the Religious Zionism alliance of parties, tweeted, “I hope now that the Likud understand that there is no trusting in the haters of Israel.”

Before the vote, Yamina reached a deal with Likud for the latter’s proposal that would have given pro-Netanyahu parties most of half the seats along with Yamina, but following the adoption of Lapid’s plan, the anti-Netanyahu bloc is tied with the pro-Netanyahu bloc, with Ra’am wielding veto power.

Ra’am’s cooperation with Lapid came after the party had been courting both Knesset blocs during negotiations to form a government. Netanyahu had been hoping to build a government based on outside support from Ra’am, but the idea was rejected outright by the Religious Zionism party, which has repeatedly said it will not stay in a coalition that relies on cooperation with Arab Israeli parties.

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

Earlier in the day, Netanyahu had placed great emphasis on getting the Likud proposal passed, hounding Bennett with an open condemnation of his refusal to commit to giving his backing.

At the Likud party weekly faction meeting, Netanyahu warned that Bennett must support the Likud in the vote, as well as join the prime minister in forming a coalition government.

“Today is the moment of truth for Naftali Bennett,” Netanyahu declared. “He must stop racing toward a left-wing government with Lapid and Labor. He must support a direct election [for prime minister] and back our proposal for the Arrangements Committee.”

“If Bennett doesn’t do this, it means he’s partnering with the left,” Netanyahu said.

In an unusual move, Netanyahu also dropped by the faction meeting of his ultra-Orthodox ally United Torah Judaism, where he further berated Bennett, telling lawmakers that the Yamina leader had refused to commit to supporting the Arrangements Committee proposal during talks they held before the faction meetings.

“Bennett is going with them [the bloc to change the prime minister], we will need to stand strong together and this period will pass quickly,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu, who was earlier this month tasked by President Reuven Rivlin with forming a government as he had the most backing from other MKs to do the job, has another 15 days to complete the task or Rivlin can look at other options.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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