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Top right-wing rabbi came close to endorsing Likud-led coalition with Ra’am – report

New details from meeting last year suggest Netanyahu sought Haim Druckman’s approval for a government with Mansour Abbas and his Islamist party, before Smotrich thwarted effort

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

MK Mansour Abbas, left, leads a discussion and a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset on June 29, 2022; Rabbi Haim Drukman attends the campaign launch of the right-wing Yamina party on February 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90); (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)
MK Mansour Abbas, left, leads a discussion and a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset on June 29, 2022; Rabbi Haim Drukman attends the campaign launch of the right-wing Yamina party on February 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90); (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

With Israel set for its fifth round of elections in under four years in November, one incident from last year stands out in the country’s ongoing attempt to form a stable government: an hour-long meeting between Mansour Abbas, the head of the Islamist party Ra’am, and leading national-religious Rabbi Haim Druckman.

Last week, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared scathingly that the “experiment” of including Ra’am in his successor Naftali Bennett’s coalition had failed.

But new details from the meeting between Abbas and Druckman, as well as text messages exchanged between Abbas and a Netanyahu associate, published for the first time on Tuesday, indicated Netanyahu was actually interested in reaching a political agreement with Abbas that would allow him to form a government.

Abbas and Druckman’s meeting was held in late April last year, as Netanyahu was struggling to form a government with the 59 seats won by parties that supported him.

Netanyahu’s attempts to negotiate with Abbas met with opposition from Bezalel Smotrich, whose far-right Religious Zionism party had won seven seats and whose support was crucial for the Netanyahu-led bloc.

In an attempt to convince Smotrich to agree to sit with Ra’am in a right-wing coalition led by Netanyahu, then-Likud MK Amit Halevi set out to mediate a meeting between Abbas and Druckman that would produce a public endorsement of the idea by a religious-Zionist leading light, Channel 12 news reported.

Then-Likud MK Amit Halevi speaks during a visit of Knesset members to the Oz Vegaon nature reserve in Gush Etzion on October 22, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

One condition put forth by Druckman, according to the report, was that Abbas publicly recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

“Publicly declare that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people. It even says so in the Quran,” the rabbi reportedly told Abbas, to which the latter replied: “If I say something like that right now, my life will be in danger.”

“So say Israel is Jewish and democratic,” Druckman suggested.

“I will, but not right now. We need to wait for the right moment,” Abbas said.

Later that year, Abbas did publicly acknowledge Israel’s Jewish character, saying during a conference in Tel Aviv that “Israel was born as a Jewish state. And that was the decision of the Jewish people, to establish a Jewish state. The question is not ‘what is the identity of the state?’ That’s how the state was born, and so it will remain.”

According to the report, Abbas revealed to Druckman his political aspirations at the time, saying he was not interested in joining a right-wing coalition, preferring a strategy of abstaining in votes important for the coalition and aiming to get certain benefits that would serve the Arab community in Israel.

“Want to build settlements [in the West Bank]? That has nothing to do with me. You don’t need approval from the [Islamic] Shura Council,” Abbas reportedly told Druckman.

Abbas’s public condemnation of a Palestinian terror attack in the West Bank that left three Israeli yeshiva students injured was a coordinated test between Druckman and Abbas, according to the report.

“I unequivocally oppose any harm to innocents and call for the preservation of human life and to give hope that we can live together in peace,” Abbas said at the time.

Mansour Abbas attends the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, on February 22, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a letter addressed to Druckman, the Arab lawmaker wrote: “Dear Rabbi Druckman, I was very happy to be able to visit your home and I thank you for the warm hospitality and the respectful conversation.

“The Ra’am party is willing to enter coalition negotiations in order to promote issues relating to the Arab community. I and members of my party, as Israeli citizens, respect the state and its laws, and harshly oppose terrorism, violence or harming the State of Israel in any way possible,” Abbas’s letter read, according to the report.

Writing to Halevi later that day, Abbas said: “Tomorrow, inshallah, the rabbi will publish [the endorsement].”

But just as it seemed that Druckman was convinced by Abbas and would issue a statement of support, other political players swooped in and foiled the attempt.

A message issued on behalf of Druckman the following day read: “As a person [Abbas] left a positive impression on me… But in my opinion, the government must be based on Jews.”

Disappointed by Druckman’s message, Halevi texted Abbas, accusing Smotrich and Religious Zionism MK Orit Strock of being behind the final wording of the statement, according to the report.

“Very disappointing. There was an all-out war there,” Halevi wrote, referring to a meeting held at Druckman’s house and attended by prominent leaders who were meant to reach a final decision on endorsing a government with Abbas.

Noting that several of the rabbis in attendance supported the step, Halevi said that “unfortunately, Smotrich showed up at one point despite not being invited, as well as Orit Strock, and the rest is history.”

Rabbi Haim Druckman (L) Naftali Bennett (C) and Bezalel Smotrich attend the campaign launch of the right-wing Yamina party, ahead of the Israeli general elections on February 12, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

According to Channel 12, Druckman later said that Smotrich did not let others speak and repeatedly raised his voice until he managed to convince the room that Abbas joining the coalition would be a disaster for Israel’s right.

The negotiations officially collapsed shortly after, when May’s Operation Guardian of the Walls was launched in Gaza, and Abbas decided to change strategy and negotiate with Bennett and Yair Lapid instead — leading to the establishment of Israel’s 36th government in June that year.

The Likud party rejected the report, insisting that “Likud has never and will never agree to include the Muslim Brotherhood in the government.”

Likud MK David Amsalem, a key ally of Netanyahu, said last week that Abbas’s Ra’am party would be welcome to join a potential Likud-led coalition, so long as the government would still have a majority without its support — comments that were quickly disavowed by Netanyahu and the Likud party.

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