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Bennett and Netanyahu spar over reported agreement

Prospect of millions in funding for Arab towns ends 3-day coalition crisis

Meretz MK Rinawie Zoabi reverses move to quit after facing pressure from Arab leaders, who expect already-earmarked funds to be released

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi arrives for an interview at Channel 12's Neve Ilan studios, May 19, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi arrives for an interview at Channel 12's Neve Ilan studios, May 19, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Just three days after resigning from the coalition in protest of its rightward shift and neglect of Arab issues, MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi returned to the political alliance Sunday, thanks to pressure from Arab society and in exchange for an apparent promise that the government will release funds earmarked for Arab towns.

Rinawie Zoabi surprised the coalition, including her own Meretz party’s leadership, with her Thursday departure, which dropped the coalition to a 59-seat minority standing in the 120-member Knesset.

Her return was speedily announced after a Sunday meeting with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and several Arab municipal leaders. While Lapid and Rinawie Zoabi declined to detail agreements made, several mayors present at the meeting told The Times of Israel that they hope that the “hundreds of millions” of shekels in stuck funding will be released to Arab municipalities.

“There will be a vote in the Finance Ministry to disperse this money soon. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of shekels here that they need to transfer,” said Kafr Kanna mayor Izz al-Din Amarna.

Throughout the meeting with Lapid, the mayors demanded that the government accelerate the disbursement of the funds, he said.

The money, clarified Kfar Manda mayor Ali Khader Zidan, is not a new allocation but rather part of an already budgeted five-year plan to reduce inequality between Arab and Jewish towns.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on May 22, 2022. (Oz Avital)

“It’s not an issue of budgets that were agreed upon, it’s an issue of budgets that were promised in the coalition negotiations and haven’t arrived,” said Zidan. “So what needed to happen was to plan a system by which the money will arrive in the field.”

As part of coalition negotiations with the Islamist Ra’am party, significant budgets were obtained to address infrastructure, crime, and socioeconomic issues in Arab cities. However, much of the money has yet to appear in municipal coffers.

Several government ministries have roles in releasing the funds, and Amir Besharat, a senior adviser at the National Council for Arab Mayors, blamed offices controlled by the coalition’s rightward flank, such as the Interior Ministry, for gumming up the process.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked — a member of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s ruling right-wing Yamina party — has fought repeatedly with Ra’am over legislation and budgets for Arab communities.

“[Ra’am chief] Mansour Abbas may have successfully brought funding. But these government ministries have yet to change their racist policies toward the Palestinian minority in Israel,” Besharat said.

Zidan similarly called out “neglect” of Arab towns.

“There’s been neglect of Arab society as if it’s not part of [Israeli] society,” Zidan said, adding that Arab municipalities do “not [receive] equal money compared to what’s given to the Jews.”

Funding for Arab communities has become a politically charged topic on the right. Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister who heads the Likud party, has repeatedly attacked coalition leaders for appropriations made for Arab communities and issues.

Leader of the opposition and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 16, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Bennett and Lapid are willing to do anything to survive in power and for this purpose they pay huge sums, from your money, the taxpayers, to the haters of Israel and the terror supporters upon which their government depends,” Netanyahu charged in a Sunday video statement released shortly after the Lapid-Zoabi meeting.

“They have already paid NIS 50 billion to Abbas, last week, they paid NIS 200 million to [Joint List MK Ahmed] Tibi for some road he demanded, and today, they paid hundreds of millions to Zoabi,” the Likud leader said, making the claim that Rinawie Zoabi obtained fresh funding.

The prime minister’s Yamina party, constantly under fire from its base and opposition parties for not being sufficiently right-wing, quickly responded that “no new funds were promised to MK Rinawie Zoabi.” Rather, Yamina confirmed that “what was discussed with her was opening barriers to existing appropriations from the five-year plan approved by the government within the existing budget.”

Despite their frustration with elements of the current government, many Arab leaders pushed on Rinawie Zoabi to maintain the coalition. Should it crumble, Netanyahu and ultra-rightwing allies might lead a right-religious government back to power, an alternative they prefer less.

“We asked for her not to leave the coalition. We told her that we are not interested in toppling this government. We pressured her and she went back on it,” said Amarna, who added that pressure by Arab mayors was key to keeping Rinawie Zoabi inside the coalition.

Shortly after the temporary defector’s departure announcement, a campaign mounted on Arabic-language social media to ask her to not break up the government, culminating in protesters outside of her Nof Hagalil home on Saturday night. Adding to the pressure, on Friday, Abbas met with Rinawie Zoabi to similarly encourage her to keep the government together.

Citing dissatisfaction with the coalition’s shift rightward and with the Israel Police’s behavior on the Temple Mount and during the recent funeral of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, Rinawie Zoabi temporarily eased the way for the return of a solidly right-wing government by stripping the coalition of its parity.

In contrast to Yamina MK Idit Silman — who quit the coalition last month over complaints that it did not align with her Jewish and right-wing values — Rinawie Zoabi did not find a natural home in the right-religious-oriented opposition.

Aaron Boxerman contributed reporting.

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