Netanyahu’s far-right allies seethe after Islamist MK’s call for cooperation

Religious Zionism leader Smotrich said refusing to answer premier’s calls to discuss government backed by Ra’am, as Labor chief urges potential kingmaker Abbas to join anti-PM bloc

Ra'am party leader Mansour Abbas speaks during a press conference in Nazareth, April 1, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Ra'am party leader Mansour Abbas speaks during a press conference in Nazareth, April 1, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

A primetime speech by Ra’am party chairman Mansour Abbas, in which he called for political cooperation between Jews and Arabs, drew praise from some left-wing and right-wing politicians on Thursday night.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right allies, however, were seething, with Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich reportedly refusing to take the premier’s phone calls to discuss the prospect of forming a right-wing government supported by Ra’am.

Abbas, whose Islamist party won four seats in the Knesset, emerged as an unlikely possible kingmaker after last week’s inconclusive election. Though he has expressed willingness to partner with either Netanyahu or his rivals — whichever offered a better deal benefiting Arab Israelis — he has yet to endorse a candidate, and said on Thursday he had no desire to be part of either camp.

Ra’am could possibly put either Netanyahu or his opponents over the 61-seat mark, crowning the next premier. But right-wing politicians, both in the pro-Netanyahu bloc and the anti-Netanyahu bloc, have ruled out basing a coalition on the party’s support, due to what they say is an anti-Zionist stance; others have accused Ra’am of supporting terrorists.

Opposition is strongest in the pro-Netanyahu bloc which includes the far-right Religious Zionism party.

Itamar Ben Gvir, the leader of the extremist Otzma Yehudit faction of the Religious Zionism party, lambasted Abbas’s speech.

“Mansour Abbas’s speech tries to present as a ‘cuddly teddy bear’ someone who belongs to the Islamic Movement, supports Hamas and sanctifies murderers of babies,” he said in a statement.

“Any coalition propped up by Abbas would be the end of the right-wing, and we have no public mandate to do that,” he added, calling on right-wing party leaders Naftali Bennett of Yamina and Gideon Sa’ar of New Hope to help form a right-wing government.

Head of the far-right Religious Zionism party MK Bezalel Smotrich and party member Itamar Ben Gvir with supporters at the party headquarters in Modi’in, on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Religious Zionism leader MK Smotrich was so enraged at what he saw as an attempt by Likud to “whitewash” Ra’am that he refused to take a Thursday evening phone call from Netanyahu, the Ynet website reported.

“Smotrich is furious over the whitewashing campaign that Netanyahu arranged for Ra’am, which supports terror and is opposed to the definition of the State of Israel as a Jewish state,” an associate of the Religious Zionism chief was quoted saying.

Meanwhile, Labor leader MK Merav Michaeli urged Abbas to bring his Islamist party into the bloc aiming to oust Netanyahu.

Labor party leader MK Merav Michaeli speaks during a meeting in Tel Aviv, March 24, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“We needed a pandemic and a political meltdown so that after 28 years of incitement by Netanyahu and the right, it will become clear that the Arab public is part of Israeli society,” Michaeli said in a statement.

Michaeli, who has already committed her left-wing party to backing opposition leader Yair Lapid for prime minister, called on Abbas to “come with us so that together, we will be able to change reality.”

Praise for Abbas also came from Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch of Likud, who said the Ra’am chairman’s speech showed he is the true voice of Arab Israelis.

“I was happy to hear Abbas,” Kisch tweeted. “The Joint List doesn’t represent the Arab Israeli citizens of Israel who want to live in peace and with equal rights in Israel. Today we saw that that voice has representation in the Knesset.”

Ra’am previously ran for the Knesset as part of the Joint List but broke off ahead of last week’s vote for an independent run, amid disagreements over Abbas’s political willingness to back Netanyahu.

MK Yoav Kisch, then chairman of the Interior Affairs Committee at the Knesset, on July 12, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

During his speech, which was carried live by all of Israel’s major television networks, Abbas did not endorse either Netanyahu or Lapid as the next premier, following last week’s inconclusive election. He also declined to associate his party with either political bloc.

“This is the time to look for the common denominator,” Abbas said in his speech in Nazareth.

“I have focused on what I will do, not what I won’t do. I don’t rule out the right, nor the left,” he declared.

Lapid has already met with Abbas seeking his support to become prime minister.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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