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Netanyahu accuses Bennett of ‘gambling with lives’ as PM defends Ra’am partnership

‘His vision was, how can we – Israeli citizens – get along,’ premier says of Mansour Abbas, accusing Likud chair of treating Islamist party leader like a ‘mistress’ when he was PM

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

Opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. (Menahem Kahana/AFP; Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. (Menahem Kahana/AFP; Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

After lawmakers signed a letter forcing him to attend a Knesset plenum session, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett took to the podium plenum on Monday and criticized the opposition for trying to push for an election at all costs.

The Knesset session, sometimes referred to as a “40 signatures discussion,” was promoted after a minimum of 40 opposition MKs requested to hold a debate with the prime minister.

Officially, it was convened to address a recent rise in criminal activity targeting farms and criminal entities charging protection money from farmers and business owners throughout the country. However, the discussion quickly derailed into mutual accusations between Bennett and opposition MKs, notably Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu.

Addressing the plenum, the embattled prime minister discussed the political partnership he created with Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamist Ra’am party, which for three weeks kept Israeli politics on the edge of its seat by freezing its participation in the coalition.

“I didn’t know Abbas,” Bennett said, recounting his meeting with Abbas before forming the coalition. “I only heard Bibi had secretly met with him a few times at [the] Balfour [Street prime ministerial residence]. I said that I wouldn’t meet him in hiding. He’s not a mistress.”

Netanyahu has long denied the widely reported negotiations he held with Abbas to enter a Likud-led coalition after the April 2020 election. Those talks failed amid the opposition of Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel Smotrich, creating an opening for the formation of an eight-party coalition led by Bennett and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid — one that also included Ra’am. Abbas last week pushed back against Netanyahu’s claim that the sides had not been in talks about Ra’am joining a right-wing government, saying he had recorded phone calls with Netanyahu to prove approaches from the then-prime minister and other Likud officials.

Addressing the plenum on Monday, Bennett described his first impression of Abbas. “I listened to him. His vision was, how can we — Israeli citizens — get along and present a vision of cooperation and not one of screaming and arguing.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) speaks to Ra’am leader MK Mansour Abbas in the Knesset, on November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The State of Israel is a unique and complex situation, that’s the truth. But I was convinced by Abbas’s genuine desire to walk a different path,” Bennett said. “The decent ones among you [members of the opposition] know it’s true. We’re trying. Trying to improve education, trying to resolve the situation in the Negev,” the premier stated.

“The idea was to strengthen several legal communities and to gradually transition illegal towns into legal ones, one by one,” Bennett said of his government’s five-year plan to invest in Israeli Bedouin communities in southern Israel, where Ra’am enjoys substantial backing.

“I’m proud of that. It’s good for them and good for us,” he said, before being met with shouts by opposition members.

“What’s wrong?” Bennett asked a turbulent plenum. “Those who need to be standing here and apologizing are those who for 20 years did nothing,” he charged, adding: “The vision of the opposition is elections. The vision of this government is growth.”

Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett attends a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament on May 16, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

Speaking after Bennett, Netanyahu accused the prime minister and his “weak government” of “experimenting” with human lives.

Netanyahu addressed the political crisis Bennett’s coalition faces, saying that “those who completely control this government are members of the Shura Council. You have already promised Ra’am NIS 50 billion, but their appetite isn’t sated.”

Netanyahu was referring to the Islamist religious council that guides the Ra’am party and much of its political policy.

“The series of shameful incidents in the country recently is not accidental,” the former prime minister charged, apparently referring to the government’s handling of the recent terror wave. “It stems from the weakness of this deceitful government.”

“Our enemies are suddenly not afraid, they feel your weakness and futility,” Netanyahu added. “When you established this government you said, ‘We’re going to do an experiment,’ but I’m telling you that people’s lives are not an experiment. Any sane person understands that the experiment failed — completely failed. You’re gambling with all of our lives, and we’re all paying the price. Like obsessive gamblers, you don’t know when to stop.”

“A government that depends on those who would reject the existence of the Jewish state, such a government will not survive… Finito la commedia!” Netanyahu concluded.

In December, Abbas gave a speech suggesting the opposite — that Israel’s status as a Jewish state could not be changed and that Arab Israelis would be best served following his pragmatic approach rather than trying to challenge the country’s identity.

Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament on May 16, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

Likud has been trying to convince more members of the fragile coalition to defect after the then-coalition whip and Yamina member Idit Silman announced she was leaving the coalition, erasing its one-seat majority and putting it at a 60-60 seat parity with the opposition.

Abbas, announcing last week that his party would stay in the coalition, for now, warned against entering another round of elections that might bring Netanyahu back to power.

Netanyahu’s return to power, he argued, “would destroy our accomplishments for the Arab society.”

On Sunday, Ra’am announced that it had reached a new agreement with the rest of the coalition regarding unrecognized communities in the southern Negev region of the country that would allow for some illegal construction to remain standing without penalty.

The development came after last week Ra’am ended its three-week freeze on its participation in parliament and in the coalition over tensions in Jerusalem.

The Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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