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'They're anti-Zionists,' PM said dismissively before vote

Netanyahu said he won’t serve with Ra’am, but he may need to, to stay in power

Latest electoral math shows conservative Islamist party essential to either coalition; PM would need to walk back previous statements and strongarm his right-wing partners

A combination image showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) casting his vote in the Knesset election in Jerusalem on March 23, 2021 (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL) and Ra'am party leader Mansour Abbas at the party headquarters in Tamra on election night, March 23, 2021. (Flash90)
A combination image showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) casting his vote in the Knesset election in Jerusalem on March 23, 2021 (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL) and Ra'am party leader Mansour Abbas at the party headquarters in Tamra on election night, March 23, 2021. (Flash90)

The updated vote tally released Wednesday morning put the Islamist Ra’am party above the electoral threshold, transforming chairman Mansour Abbas into a possible kingmaker.

It was a dramatic triumph for the conservative Islamist, who had aimed to make his party into “the deciding vote” in the next Israeli government. Abbas told reporters on Tuesday morning that he would not rule out serving in a coalition with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a previously unthinkable red line for Arab politicians.

The latest tally — still subject to change — showed Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc with 52 secure votes. Assuming he can bring in Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, that brings him to 59. Without Ra’am’s five seats — or a defection from the anti-Netanyahu camp — it is unlikely he can form a government.

But Netanyahu has repeatedly ruled out sitting with Abbas in a coalition, saying that Ra’am was no different from the Arab Joint List — long considered a political pariah due to its non-Zionist and anti-Zionist views.

Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas and party members at the Ra’am headquarters in Tamra, on election night, March 23, 2021. (Flash90)

Abbas has publicly pursued a detente with Netanyahu for several months. His willingness to coordinate with the right-wing prime minister drew the ire of his Joint List colleagues, and the four-party alliance of Arab parties officially fell apart in February, with Ra’am going its separate way.

But Abbas has yet to see either Netanyahu or the Likud party publicly warm to his overtures.

“There is no difference between Mansour Abbas and Ayman Odeh — the two of them will not be in the government. They represent parties that oppose the State of Israel,” Netanyahu told Haifa Radio on March 12.

Netanyahu also closed a loophole used by a previous Labor government to rely on the political power of Arab Israeli parties: Abbas’s faction could act as a supporting bloc outside the government — preventing a no-confidence vote without technically participating.

In an interview with Ynet before the elections, Netanyahu was asked specifically whether he would rely on Ra’am’s support from outside the coalition. This time, the reason he gave was the Arab party’s opposition to the decision by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to normalize ties with Israel last fall.

“Absolutely not… they are an anti-Zionist party. Mansour Abbas voted against the peace agreements with Arab countries,” Netanyahu said.

“I won’t offer anything, I won’t lean [rely] on them. Nothing,” he concluded.

He said much the same in a Channel 12 interview last week. “Mansour Abbas? I won’t rely [for a majority] on anyone who opposes Zionism,” he said, while asserting that “my rival Yair Lapid” was ready to do so. “I won’t do that… Out of the question.” Pressed on whether he would even accept Abbas’s support from outside the coalition, he repeated: “I won’t do it.”

Ra’am candidate Mansour Abbas addresses Arab voters in Kafr Kanna on February 22, 2021 (Courtesy: United Arab List)

On Wednesday morning, his own Likud colleagues were publicly split over a possible alliance with Abbas.

But with Ra’am an apparent necessity in any electoral constellation, Netanyahu may have to cooperate with it in some way. It would be unlikely for the prime minister to give up the opportunity to stay in power — provided he could corral his right-wing coalition.

“If Netanyahu needs those four seats to support his government, he will tell his right-wing partners such as [Itamar] Ben Gvir to shut up, and Ra’am will be ready to join,” researcher Arik Rudnitsky, who studies Arab Israeli politics at the Israel Democracy Institute, predicted to The Times of Israel earlier this week.

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