A deputy minister from the Likud party held contacts with members of the Palestine Liberation Organization about the possibility of encouraging Arab Israelis to back Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in elections next month, the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported Monday.
Knesset member Fateen Mulla, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, confirmed to the paper that he held talks with the PLO’s Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society, but did not give any details on what was under discussion.
Palestinian sources told Yedioth that the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority had been in contact with Likud in the past few weeks over what the report called “quiet support” for Netanyahu in the coming election. Ramallah is reportedly concerned that Netanyahu could be ousted by an even more right-wing political leader.
The discussions surrounded drumming up support for Likud among Arab Israeli voters, or alternatively, encouraging them to not vote for the Joint List, a predominantly Arab faction that usually gains the lion’s share of the community’s support, sources said.
According to the report, relations between the Joint List and Ramallah have cooled over the past few months.
Likud was represented in the talks by Mulla, who hails from the Druze community, the report said, while on the Palestinian side were members of the PLO committee headed by panel leader Muhammad Al-Madani, a close confidant of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The Palestinians invited Likud representatives to hold face-to-face talks in Ramallah, but the Israeli side backed down, apparently due to security considerations, the report said. This offended the Palestinians, one source said, and the issue has now receded.
The Ramallah sources said that after Israeli elections were called at the end of last year, PA analysts came to the conclusion that the campaign would be a battle between the right-wing Likud and the even more hawkish New Hope led by Gideon Sa’ar, along with the hard-right Yamina party led by MK Naftali Bennett, with the Palestinians preferring the relatively more moderate Likud of Netanyahu.
Palestinians are concerned that if either Sa’ar or Bennett gain power it could lead to unilateral moves such as the annexation of large parts of the West Bank, the sources said.
The PLO’s Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society said in a statement following the report that “meeting various Israeli political parties is part of its mission,” according to the semi-official WAFA news site.
“We have repeatedly seen in the various Israeli election campaigns many manifestations of Israelis defaming their opponents and in every time they involve the Palestinians in their campaign,” the statement said.
Mulla confirmed that there had been talks, but he described them as covering “all sorts of things on the backburner.”
“We are trying to do good for Israel and the Middle East,” he told Yedioth. “I can’t go into more details than that.”
The Joint List, he said, “does not represent the Palestinian people.”
However, the Likud party described the report as “utter nonsense. Everyone knows that the Palestinian Authority prefers [centrist Yesh Atid party leader Yair] Lapid as prime minister instead of Netanyahu.” Recent polls have shown Lapid could head the second-largest party behind Likud after the elections.
Sa’ar responded to the report saying in a tweet: “Netanyahu’s attempt to involve PLO figures in the Israeli election is a new low. Netanyahu has no red lines. Time and again he proves that he has only personal interests, which outweigh the national interest.”
Yamina MK Matan Kahana said the reported cooperation with Abbas’s PA is “a step too far taken by Likud under Netanyahu.”
“A secret election agreement” with Abbas is “a dangerous precedent,” Kahana tweeted.
Netanyahu has pursued support among Arab Israelis ahead of the March 23 elections, in a stark about-face from his party’s previous policy, including unsubstantiated warnings of electoral fraud in Arab communities and repeated attacks on Arab lawmakers.
The elections will the fourth time Israelis have voted in the past two years. In 2019, during the run-up to one of the two elections held that year, Netanyahu sought to encourage right-wing voters to cast their ballots by claiming that the PA was urging Ara -Israelis to vote against him. The PA strongly denied the claim.