Ra’am yet to decide on rejoining Bennett, as potential coalition-killing vote looms

Arab party’s steering panel to announce decision Wed.; leader reports progress toward ending freeze, but source insists Ra’am will still abstain, possibly imperiling government

Ra'am head Mansour Abbas in the Knesset on December 6, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)
Ra'am head Mansour Abbas in the Knesset on December 6, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

A drawn-out meeting by Ra’am party clerics into the wee hours of Wednesday failed to produce a definitive answer on whether the faction plans to resume cooperating with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition, leaving the survival of Israel’s government or the possibility of fresh elections hanging in the balance.

Ra’am chief Mansour Abbas said there had been positive progress in talks over the party ending its decision to suspend membership in Bennett’s governing alliance, but party sources signaled that the protest over Israel’s response to unrest in Jerusalem was likely to remain in place.

The comments came after members of Ra’am’s Shura Council — the party’s Islamic steering committee —  met for seven hours in Kafr Qasim in central Israel to hash out the party’s position, quitting just after midnight.

Abbas said the council would reconvene Wednesday morning to make a final decision on the matter. The party scheduled a press conference in Kafr Qasim for 9:30 a.m.

“We discussed all the various angles to this, everything is on the table,” Abbas said. “A summary will be formulated in the morning and members of the Shura Council will vote on it.”

He added that there has been “positive progress with the coalition, but a final decision will be made tomorrow.”

MK Waleed Taha (L) and Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas and party members at the Ra’am headquarters in Tamra, March 23, 2021, at the end of voting on election day. (Flash90)

The timing is critical, as Ra’am’s position could make or break a Likud-led bill to dissolve the Knesset expected to go up later Wednesday.

Bennett’s wide-tent coalition has been in a tailspin in recent weeks, after coalition whip Idit Silman from his own nationalist Yamina party defected to the opposition, joining MK Amichai Chikli who previously jumped ship.

The departure left Bennett one vote shy of a majority and tied with the opposition 60-60. Days later, Ra’am announced it was temporarily pulling its four members from the coalition to express anger over Israeli police activity at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in response to Palestinian rioters, crippling the coalition for however long the suspension lasts.

The opposition measure needs the support of at least 61 MKs in three successive votes to actually dissolve the Knesset. However, Wednesday’s planned vote would be a preliminary measure, meaning only a simple majority is needed for it to advance.

Israeli police move behind riot shields during clashes with Palestinians at the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

The Arab-led Joint List, which is in the opposition but not aligned with it, said Tuesday it would support Likud’s effort to dissolve the Knesset, giving opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s longshot bid the potential support of 59 MKs to Bennett’s 56, should all of Ra’am abstain.

According to reports, coalition officials fear an initial victory in the preliminary vote would give the opposition enough of a tailwind to garner the support of other potential defectors, putting it over the 61 MK threshold needed to pass a measure calling new elections on subsequent votes.

Despite the danger to the coalition’s hold on power, a Shura Council source said the panel was likely to recommend maintaining the freeze.

“In that case, we’ll allow party members to decide themselves whether to participate in the vote on bringing down the government,” the source told Ynet.

Ra’am MK Mazen Ghanaim is widely expected to abstain no matter the council’s decision, but should the faction’s three other MKs vote to save the coalition it would create a 59-59 tie, with Silman the tie-breaking vote.

Former coalition whip Idit Silman at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on November 16, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Though she sparked the crisis with her departure, the maverick MK has also refrained from voting against the coalition.

Ahead of the vote, Abbas said the guiding principle of the party will be the interests of the Arab community in Israel, rather than a personal or partisan consideration.

The veteran politician made history a year ago by leading his faction into Bennett’s coalition, adding the Islamist party to its litany of strange bedfellows that already included dovish leftists alongside hardline nationalists. Abbas has defended the move as a necessary step to secure benefits for the Arab community, but has faced intense internal pressure to switch to the opposition as those earmarks have largely failed to materialize.

Acting coalition chairman Boaz Toporovsky said earlier Tuesday that the crisis posed a “real threat” to the coalition.

“The disagreements with Ra’am are not about the Temple Mount, but about them not seeing sufficient results in regard to Israel’s Arab citizens,” he told Army Radio.

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

Bennett has also faced internal pressure over the inclusion of Ra’am in his coalition, which Likud has seized on by painting the government as one held hostage by “terror-supporters.” The attempts to peel away right-wing support, particularly from the premier’s own Yamina faction, have been undeterred by the fact that Likud also negotiated with Ra’am about a possible partnership during coalition talks a year ago.

“The fact that the future of the current government depends on the Muslim Brotherhood’s Shura Council is another historic low that Bennett has dragged us to,” a Likud spokesperson said in a statement issued during the Tuesday night summit. “A government dependent on terror supporters can’t fight terror.”

Abbas hit back by noting that “Netanyahu also waited on the Shura Council’s votes while in talks with us about forming a government, and met with me four times at his residence on Balfour Street.”

According to the Kan public broadcaster, Likud officials have continued to lobby Ra’am members to abstain, even as the government scrambles to try and meet some of the demands put forth by the party when it froze its coalition membership.

The station also reported that Abbas fumed at Foreign Minister Yair Lapid when he called to inquire about the party’s plans for the vote, saying that it was up to the council and not him.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (L) speaks with MK Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamist Ra’am party, in the Knesset plenum on June 21, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A report by Channel 12 news claimed that Ra’am’s council will decide to cut off communications with Bennett and use Lapid, who is set to rotate the premiership with Bennett next year, as a conduit instead, due to frustration with the premier’s statements on Israel’s policies in Jerusalem.

Asked by Channel 13 if he was in talks with Bennett, Abbas said, “I’m always talking to Bennett.”

“Ra’am has the confidence that it is doing the right thing for the Arab sector above all else and for advancing the topics it represents,” he added. “We are aware that the coalition has parties with many different considerations. What we care about is us.”

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