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PM calls heads of Ra’am, left-wing parties, seeking support for direct elections

Netanyahu speaks with leaders of Islamist party Ra’am, Blue and White, Labor, Meretz to drum up backing for a vote for PM if the ‘change bloc’ ends up failing to form a government

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on April 20, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on April 20, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke in recent days with Mansour Abbas, chairman of Islamist party Ra’am, for the first time since the March elections, and called other heads of center and left-wing parties.

Netanyahu, who is exploring all possibilities before his mandate to form a government ends in less than two weeks, spoke with Blue and White’s Benny Gantz, Labor’s Merav Michaeli, and Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz.

The Likud leader’s objective is to rally support for holding direct elections for prime minister — a proposal he has thrown his weight behind as his other attempts at forming a government after last month’s elections have so far fallen flat.

According to Channel 12 news, Netanyahu’s telephone conversation with Abbas was aimed at getting him to support a bill mandating direct elections. Israel currently votes for parties, not for prime minister. In his talks with center-left leaders, he asked them not to rule out the option outright.

The call to Abbas was seen as a significant move by Netanyahu, who had been careful to avoid direct contact with Ra’am’s leader previously.

Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am party, gives a press statement after meeting with Israeli president Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu has been hoping to build a government based on outside support from Ra’am, but the idea has been categorically rejected by the far-right Religious Zionism party, which has repeatedly said it will not take part in a coalition that relies on cooperation with Arab Israeli parties, due what is calls their anti-Zionism and support for terror.

This week Abbas, reportedly frustrated that Netanyahu was taking his support for granted, voted against Likud’s proposal on the makeup of a key Knesset committee. This led to Likud’s defeat in the vote, and ruminations by a leading associate of the premier that it appeared Likud would not continue to lead the country.

In Netanyahu’s conversations with left-wing party heads, the premier was said to attempt to muster support for direct elections at a later stage, if the so-called “change bloc,” guided by Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, fails to form a government.

At a press conference Wednesday, Yamina party chief Naftali Bennett said that while he continued to support Netanyahu’s efforts to form a right-wing government, if the premier failed to do so in the final two weeks of his mandate, Bennett would work to build a “national unity government” — presumably one led by Lapid, and that would leave Likud in the opposition.

In the pro-Netanyahu bloc, supporters hope that Bennett’s attempt to build a government with center and left-wing parties might lead to a rift inside Yamina and prompt defections, according to Channel 12, though if little changes by the end of Netanyahu’s mandate, this seems unlikely.

On Wednesday, Bennett criticized the premier’s push for direct elections, charging that Netanyahu was “pushing for only one thing, more elections, this time packaged as direct elections [for prime minister]. He’s saying ‘If I don’t have a government, nobody will have a government; we’ll have elections — 5th and 6th and 7th.’”

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett delivers a statement to the press at the Knesset on April 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“This cannot go on. Israel cannot be held hostage by politicians,” he continued. “More elections means more wasted billions… more long months of divisive discourse… While the country wants a government, Netanyahu prefers another election. I won’t allow this to happen.”

Netanyahu blasted Bennett at a later press conference, charging that though Yamina only won seven seats in last month’s election, Bennett’s “unbridled personal ambition” to be prime minister was blinding him to the “destruction” he would inflict on the Israeli right.

Despite Likud’s attacks, Bennett has expressed willingness to back a Netanyahu-led government and has been holding intensive negotiations with Likud in recent weeks to do so. Last week he stated that “Likud can count on the votes of the Yamina party in favor of forming a right-wing government.” On Monday he voted with Likud on its proposal for the makeup of a powerful interim Knesset committee — a vote Likud lost.

He said the attacks on him by Netanyahu and Likud “do not impress me,” and that his first priority is for a right-wing government to be formed. “Netanyahu, it is possible,” Bennett insisted.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid during a press conference, April 18, 2021. (Courtesy)

But if Likud fails, then his second preference is “a national unity government,” presumably with Yesh Atid’s Lapid.

Netanyahu asserted that if Bennett truly wanted a right-wing government despite the ongoing political deadlock, the solution was simple: he must support the new proposal by Likud and its ultra-Orthodox allies to hold snap, direct elections for the premiership.

Netanyahu falsely claimed that such legislation would mean that were he to win a direct-election vote, he would then “automatically” set up the next government, as he said is the case in many democracies.

If such an election were held, it could buy Netanyahu more time as prime minister and help consolidate his power. However, it would not change the party divisions in the Knesset, and he would still be short of a clear majority. Pundits have speculated Netanyahu hopes to use a victory in such an election to pressure New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar to join him, as well as to end his own power-sharing deal with Blue and White, which remains in effect so long as a new permanent government has not been formed.

Current parliamentary math shows neither side is likely to be able to form a coalition without at least tacit support from Ra’am.

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