Likud weighs trying next week to advance bill for elections

Meretz MK Rinawie Zoabi quits coalition, putting it in minority

In letter to Bennett, Arab Israeli lawmaker says she ‘cannot support a coalition that harasses the Arabs’; Rinawie Zoabi had long bucked coalition line

Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi attends a Special Committee on Arab Society Affairs meeting, in the Knesset, in Jerusalem on June 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi attends a Special Committee on Arab Society Affairs meeting, in the Knesset, in Jerusalem on June 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi of the left-wing Meretz party resigned from the coalition on Thursday afternoon, reducing it to a minority in the Knesset and bringing it to the brink of collapse.

The Likud-led opposition, which last week abandoned plans to advance a bill to dissolve the Knesset and hold new elections, was said to be weighing attempting to advance such legislation next week, depending on whether it believes it can now muster a simple majority in the 120-seat Knesset. The Likud may also seek to muster the 61 votes it would need to establish a new coalition in the existing parliament without a resort to what would be Israel’s fifth elections since April 2019.

In a letter addressed to coalition leaders Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Rinawie Zoabi said her move was prompted by a rightward shift by the government.

“Unfortunately, in recent months, out of narrow political considerations, the leaders of the coalition have chosen to preserve and strengthen its right-wing flank,” she wrote.

Rinawie Zoabi — whose refusal to vote with the razor-thin coalition on some key bills gave her colleagues headaches — was set to be shuttled off to Shanghai to serve as Israeli consul in the Chinese metropolis. She withdrew her nomination for the post when she left the coalition, a spokesperson said.

Her departure comes just six weeks after former coalition whip and Yamina MK Idit Silman resigned from the coalition. While Silman’s departure pushed the coalition to parity with the opposition, Rinawie Zoabi reduced it to a 59-61 minority.

In her resignation letter, the left-wing lawmaker accused the deeply divided coalition of adopting “hawkish stances” on issues critical to Arab society, listing, “al-Aqsa and the Temple Mount, Sheikh Jarrah, the settlement enterprise and the occupation, the destruction of homes and confiscation of lands in Arab communities in the Negev, and of course the Citizenship Law.”

Originally passed during the Second Intifada and renewed annually, the Citizenship Law is a deeply controversial measure barring Palestinians married to Israeli from being granted permanent residency in Israel.

Rinawie Zoabi called the past month “intolerable,” citing recent clashes between Palestinians and police on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and during Friday’s funeral of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed May 11 during a firefight between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Jenin.

“The last month, the month of Ramadan, has been intolerable. The sights that came from the Temple Mount of violent policemen in front of a crowd of worshipers, the funeral of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh; they brought me to a personal values conclusion. No more. I can not continue to support the existence of a coalition that is disgracefully harassing this society I came from,” her statement read.

Footage from Abu Akleh’s funeral in Jerusalem on Friday showed Israeli police beating Palestinians, including some bearing her casket, outside a Jerusalem hospital.

Israeli police later said officers confronted a mob of rioters who had hurled objects at police and seized Abu Akleh’s casket by force. In an interview with The Times of Israel, her brother Anton rejected the police’s account as “illogical and untrue.”

“No more. I can no longer support the existence of a coalition that harasses the Arabs in this disgraceful way,” Rinawie Zoabi wrote.

New Knesset member Rinawie Zoabi seen at the Knesset ahead of the opening Knesset session of the new government, on April 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitousi/Flash90)

Rinawie Zoabi, 50, hails from the Arab city of Nazareth in northern Israel. Before entering politics in the 2021 Knesset election, she led a nonprofit that worked to improve Arab local government.

A Meretz official told The Times of Israel that the party only learned of the resignation when reports of it broke Thursday afternoon. A spokesperson for Rinawie Zoabi declined to comment on whether she had informed her fellow Meretz members before announcing her resignation.

Rinawie Zoabi has no immediate demands or conditions under which she might return to the coalition, her spokesperson told The Times of Israel. “It’s too early to talk about demands. For now, she’s out of the coalition.”

What next for the coalition?

Israeli governments do not fall just because they hold a minority of seats; they must be brought down. But Rinawie Zoabi’s withdrawal deals a heavy blow to the flagging coalition, which is now vulnerable to an opposition that can wield up to 61 seats.

Last week, the opposition Likud party pulled a plan to bring a bill to dissolve the Knesset and force elections after it failed to marshal the requisite support. As an opposition bill, the measure would need to pass its first of four readings with a simple majority or be scuttled for the next six months; it would then need an absolute majority, with at least 61 MKs, to clear its next three readings.

With Rinawie Zoabi reducing the coalition’s ranks to 59, Likud could reconsider bringing its dissolution bill on Wednesday. Sources within the party said on Thursday afternoon that the news was too fresh for a decision.

But the opposition is also deeply divided: a right-religious bloc of 54 lawmakers alongside six seats held by the majority Arab Joint List bloc and one from Rinawie Zoabi. Rinawie Zoabi’s spokesperson declined to comment on whether she would vote to dissolve the Knesset.

Two lawmakers from the right-religious bloc — Idit Silman and Amichai Chikli — were elected as members of the coalition Yamina party and may not vote against the coalition in anything but a constructive no-confidence vote, an immediate measure to flip the government.

Were the government to fall because of Rinawie Zoabi’s resignation, Bennett would remain as prime minister during the transitional period through elections until the establishment of a new government. (Were the coalition doomed by two defecting members of Bennett’s rightist section of the coalition, Foreign Minister Lapid would serve as transitional prime minister, under the coalition agreements.)

Rinawie Zoabi has long been viewed as a thorn in her party’s side. During the 2021 election campaign, she told an Arab Israeli television network that she would not vote to ban so-called “conversion therapy” for LGBT people.

Homosexuality remains a deeply controversial topic in Arab Israeli communities. But Rinawie Zoabi was running with the left-wing Meretz party, which has long advocated LGBT rights and whose leader, Nitzan Horowitz, is a gay man.

As a lawmaker, Rinawie Zoabi similarly bucked the coalition line. In January, she torpedoed a close vote to promote ultra-Orthodox enlistment in the Israeli army in protest over government policies in the Negev, as well as the controversial Citizenship Law.

Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi at a Knesset plenum session on February 28, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Citizenship Law largely bars Palestinians who marry Israelis from obtaining permanent residency in Israel. The legislation was enacted as a security measure during the Second Intifada, but many Israeli politicians have defended it as a means of maintaining Israel’s Jewish majority.

Tens of thousands of Arab Israelis are married to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. Last July, the law expired after the coalition failed to renew the ban. In March, coalition and opposition MKs joined forces to re-authorize the law over the heads of left-wing and Arab Israeli lawmakers.

After that vote, Rinawie Zoabi was quickly offered a prestigious role as Israel’s next consul-general in Shanghai. Many observers saw the move as an attempt by Foreign Minister Lapid to isolate the unknown coalition variable.

But Rinawie Zoabi was only set to take the post later this summer. On Thursday, she announced that she would withdraw her candidacy for the position and remain in the Knesset.

Lawmakers from opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud cheered on Rinawie Zoabi’s resignation.

“Bennett and Lapid’s failed government has turned into a minority government,” senior Likud MK Yariv Levin said in a statement. “Now it’s clear the government has lost its right to exist.”

Joint List party chief Ayman Odeh hailed Rinawie Zoabi’s decision to leave the razor-thin coalition. Like Rinawie Zoabi, Odeh slammed the current government as too right-wing.

“Most of the public wants [Arab-Jewish] partnership. But for that to happen, the sane majority must separate from the extreme right,” Odeh comments.

Labor MK Ibtisam Mara’ana — like Rinawie Zoabi, an Arab Israeli lawmaker in a Zionist party — said she was sorry to hear of Rinawie Zoabi’s resignation from the coalition.

“Every day that this coalition survives is another day when the amount of light is greater than the amount of darkness,” Mara’ana said in a statement.

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