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Likud MK bristles at Netanyahu rebuke after welcoming potential coalition with Ra’am

‘He put out a statement to hurt me,’ David Amsalem says in response to ex-PM’s disavowal of comments on adding ‘anti-Zionist’ Islamist faction to a future government

Likud MK David Amsalem attends a Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting on June 26, 2022. (Olivier FItoussi/Flash90)
Likud MK David Amsalem attends a Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting on June 26, 2022. (Olivier FItoussi/Flash90)

A lawmaker in opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party pushed back against the former prime minister after being rebuked for saying the Islamist Ra’am faction could join a Likud-led government.

In an interview Sunday morning, MK David Amsalem said he was open to including the “anti-Zionist” Ra’am in a potential coalition that already held a majority of Knesset seats without it. The comments were disavowed by Likud and Netanyahu, with the ex-premier saying he was “dumbfounded” by Amsalem’s remarks and that they represent “his opinion only, just like as has previously happened.”

Amsalem himself and at least one other Likud MK have made similar statements over the past year, without pushback from Netanyahu. The latter is thought to have made strong efforts to form a coalition with Ra’am last year, with the plan thwarted by his ally Bezalel Smotrich, the head of the far-right Religious Zionism party, who refused to join such a government.

“Some Likud members attacked me. What did Netanyahu himself do? He put out a statement to hurt me,” Amsalem told the Galei Yisrael radio station. “I don’t accept that someone is trying to hurt me over nothing, including Netanyahu.”

“What’s this ‘I was dumbfounded?’… First of all, give me a phone call and ask me ‘what’s this?’ Second, say ‘I don’t agree with Amsalem, that’s his opinion.’ No problem,” Amsalem added.

He also said “this isn’t the first time,” apparently referring to Netanyahu.

According to Channel 12 news, Likud canceled its weekly faction meeting scheduled for Monday following the spat between Netanyahu and Amsalem, which came as new elections loom after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his coalition partners moved to disperse the Knesset.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu heads a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on June 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud and its right-wing allies have railed at the outgoing coalition for including Ra’am, with Netanyahu falsely claiming in his statement Sunday that it “is an antisemitic, anti-Zionist party that supports terrorism and represents the Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks to destroy Israel.”

Ra’am represents the Southern Branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement, which is considered moderate, as opposed to the movement’s more extremist Northern Branch. Abbas has on multiple occasions strongly condemned terrorism and has also said Israel has been and will remain a Jewish state.

Despite Likud’s public protests, Abbas says Netanyahu courted him for his own coalition-building efforts last year.

Earlier this month, Abbas said he would not rule out sitting in a future government with Netanyahu, and that he would be willing to join a coalition with far-right MKs Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir of Religious Zionism, as long as they did not reject him.

The pair’s refusal to join a government propped up by Ra’am is believed to have been the deciding factor that blocked Netanyahu from forming a government with Abbas after the elections last March, leading to the emergence of the current ruling coalition.

Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas arrives at a conference at the Reichman University in Herzliya, June 12, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Separately Sunday, Channel 12 reported that Likud’s ultra-Orthodox partners — the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties — have said that if their right-wing religious bloc fails to gain a majority in the expected elections, they’ll suggest a rotation agreement between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz in which the latter serves as prime minister first.

Unnamed “senior Haredi sources” cited by the network said they believed Likud would agree to their proposal of a government that includes Gantz’s Blue and White party and the Netanyahu-led right-religious bloc, though possibly without far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir.

Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox parties formed a coalition with Gantz after a third consecutive round of elections in March 2020, with the Blue and White leader breaking his campaign pledge not to join a coalition with the then-premier due to his indictment on corruption charges. The government collapsed later that year after Netanyahu blocked the passage of a state budget, allowing him to go to elections without having to hand Gantz the premiership as part of their coalition agreement.

Following the next elections, Gantz joined the disparate power-sharing coalition led by Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, which has struggled to survive since losing its parliamentary majority in April.

On Tuesday, Gantz appeared to rule out reuniting with Netanyahu to form a new government.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz during a Blue and White party faction meeting at the Knesset, June 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Polls have predicted deadlock after elections, with neither Netanyahu’s bloc or the parties in Bennett’s coalition able to cobble together a majority government, assuming there are no changes in political alliances. All surveys have found both sides falling below the needed 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, with the Arab majority Joint List faction, which is not aligned with either side, holding the balance of power. However, the eight parties forming the current government will not necessarily remain united following their fractious coalition experience.

For instance, Bennett’s Yamina party has never pledged not to join a government headed by Netanyahu. Bennett insisted Friday that his predecessor is unsuited to once again hold the premiership, but clarified that he would not rule out sitting in a future government headed by the Likud leader.

Israel’s political landscape is set to shift in the coming week, with the Knesset expected to pass the final legislation for its dispersal on Monday and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to become prime minister soon after.

Bennett and Lapid last week announced their decision to dissolve the 24th Knesset after just one year in power due to their inability to keep their narrow, politically diverse coalition together any longer. If all goes as planned, Israel will head to its fifth national election in under four years in the fall.

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