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Islamist Ra’am said ready to give crucial support for a Lapid-Bennett government

Parties in bloc seeking to replace Netanyahu reportedly close in on final deal to form a coalition, with first laws already under discussion, though divisions remain on ministries

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

The Islamist Ra’am party is expected to actively back, but not be part of, a unity government led by Yamina chief Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, providing key backing that the pair need to build a coalition, Hebrew media reported Sunday.

In return, the emerging government will honor a list of Ra’am demands said to include budgets to fight violent crime in the Arab community and recognizing three Bedouin communities in the south of the country currently considered illegal. Ra’am leader MK Mansour Abbas is reported to have made other demands aimed at increasing government activities on behalf of the Arab community.

Bennett met earlier in the day with Abbas in what was afterward described as a productive meeting, and the two are expected to sit down again Monday with Lapid.

Following inconclusive elections in March, the Knesset was left divided between a bloc of right-wing and religious parties backing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stay in power, and the so-called “change bloc” of a left, center, and other right-wing parties seeking to replace him.

Neither bloc has a majority, but Ra’am’s backing of the “change bloc,” led by Lapid, would give it more supporting MKs than are in Netanyahu’s opposing bloc, enabling the formation of a government.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid speaks during a news conference in Tel Aviv, May 6, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

This would be the first Israeli government dependent on the support of an Arab party. Netanyahu also tried, but failed, to form a coalition with Ra’am’s support but ultimately failed because the far-right Religious Zionism party refused to sit in a government backed in any way by a party it called “terror supporters.”

Reports said significant progress was also made in coalition negotiations between Lapid and Bennett, as well as the other parties that are in the emerging coalition. Lapid, who is leading the coalition-building efforts, could be ready this week to tell President Reuven Rivlin that he can form a government, a senior source in the bloc told Channel 13, with the coalition ready to be sworn in next week, after the Shavuot festival.

Negotiations among change bloc parties have reportedly progressed to include discussions about what the first steps such a government will take once it is installed.

Parties have agreed that during the first year, the government will steer clear of any major ideological issues — such as religious matters — unless there is broad agreement on them, to avoid confrontations between its members, who have significantly disparate views on some key issues, Channel 12 reported.

To that end, Bennett told his Yamina party faction members that regarding the West Bank he will continue the same policy as Netanyahu, namely, not annexing territory or setting up new settlements, but also not freezing construction in existing Jewish communities or removing any, according to the report.

There is emerging agreement that the government would set up a state commission of inquiry into last month’s tragedy at a religious festival on Mount Meron during which 45 people were crushed to death. Netanyahu is said to be against such a commission, reportedly because he fears the political consequences.

Negotiations have also included discussion on the first laws that the government would introduce, including legislation limiting prime ministerial terms, Channel 13 reported.

Under consideration is a bill limiting a prime minister to serving just two full terms in office. Netanyahu, who has been in power for the past 12 years, is already far beyond that cap. Other legislation would prohibit anyone who has been indicted from serving as prime minister, serving as head of the opposition, or being given the mandate to form a government after elections, according to the report. Netanyahu is currently on trial in three corruption cases; he insists he is innocent and dismisses the charges as part of a witch hunt against him.

In another change, the New Hope party in the putative coalition is seeking to divide the attorney general’s position into two, adding a general prosecutor position, Channel 12 reported.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett at a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

There was also said to be progress in dividing up ministries among the various parties. Reports said that New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar was likely to become justice minister, a position currently held by Blue and White leader Benny Gantz. Though giving up that ministry, Gantz will continue as defense minister.

Yamina’s MK Ayelet Shaked was being offered a choice of taking on the public security, education, transportation, or interior ministries, Channel 12 reported.

Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz was being tapped for health minister, though he is known to seek the education ministry. His fellow Meretz party member MK Tamar Zandberg will reportedly become environmental protection minister.

However, there are still divisions on some matters, with Blue and White as well as the secular right-wing Yisrael Beytenu also bidding for contested posts.

Labor party leader MK Merav Michaeli wants the Interior Ministry and the New Hope party wants its MK Yifat Shasha-Biton to take over at the Education Ministry. Negotiations with Labor and Meretz were continuing Sunday evening, with reports saying that the two parties would be offered to chair key Knesset committees as compensation for not having their demand met in ministerial posts.

As the change coalition construction advances, Netanyahu and his Likud party are pressuring Yamina, a right-wing party, to not join with Lapid in a government that the prime minister has repeatedly warned will be “left-wing.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on April 21, 2021.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud activists have also been pushing the issue, and have held protests outside the homes of some Yamina MKs, including on Sunday night.

Shaked was forced to get a new cellphone after being bombarded with nasty messages sent by Likud and other right-wing activists, Channel 12 news reported.

Bennett on Sunday filed a complaint with the Knesset guard after announcements of his death were shared on social media.

A death notice for Naftali Bennett shared on social media, May 9, 2021 (Twitter)

Lapid last week received the presidential mandate to try to form a government. The sides are believed to have agreed that Bennett will serve as prime minister for the government’s first two years, with Lapid serving for the latter two.

Last week, the Knesset Guard boosted security around Bennett, reportedly after he received deaths threats.

If Lapid fails to cobble together a coalition during his 28-day window, which ends June 2, any Knesset member could try to get the endorsement of a majority of lawmakers for prime minister. If that 21-day period fails to yield a coalition, the country would be forced into the unprecedented scenario of a fifth election in two and a half years.

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