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Reshuffling Israel’s coalition deck amid Jewish-Arab violence

CM 13/05/2021

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 Buried in the hourly KAN radio news bulletin Thursday morning, underneath reports of rockets from Gaza, continuing IDF operations against Hamas, and rioting on Israel’s streets, was a political item that a few days ago would have been major news: a right-wing government might still be formed.

According to the item, senior officials inside Naftali Bennett’s Yamina Party – a party that has been busy trying to form a “unity” government with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid – said that the events of recent days have created a situation bringing back the possibility of a right-wing coalition.
Considering the events of the last few days, should anyone be surprised?
As late as Monday, even as rioting erupted on the Temple Mount and the police entered al-Aqsa Mosque to quell it, the Bennett and Lapid camps were talking confidently about the formation of a government comprised of Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Labor, Yisrael Beytenu, Yamina, New Hope and Meretz – a total of 57 seats (minus Yamina’s Amichai Chikli, who said he would not vote for such a government). This government would reach the magic 61 threshold with the support – either active or passive – of Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am Party.
Arutz 12 on Monday reported that – after some regular coalition wrangling – the lineup of ministers even looked set: Bennett would serve first as prime minister in a rotation agreement with Lapid, who would be alternate prime minister and foreign minister. Benny Gantz would continue as defense minister; Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman would become finance minister; New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar, justice minister; Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked, interior minister; Labor’s Merav Michaeli, transportation minister; and Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz would become health minister.
It all looked good to go, with the expectation that the new government could be sworn in just after Shavuot. Lapid said confidently at a faction meeting in the Knesset on Monday afternoon that the remaining gaps were slim.
“We can swear in a new government in a few days,” he said. “A new, functioning government based on wide-ranging agreements.”

Then, a few hours later, Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem, all hell broke loose, and the coalition cards were suddenly reshuffled.
Lapid – whose four-week mandate to try to cobble together a coalition expires on June 2 – put on a brave face this week, saying that the tragedy at Meron, the Hamas rockets and the rioting are proof that everything is broken and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs to be replaced, now more than ever.
But Lapid’s chances of doing that by getting Yamina and New Hope to agree to join a government supported by Abbas – who on Sunday condemned the police for its handling of the rioting on the Temple Mount and added his voice to those warning of “extremists’’ trying to storm the mosque – suffered a serious setback. It is unclear whether a call for calm that Abbas posted in Arabic on his Facebook page on Tuesday would be enough to again make him be seen as a legitimate party by Yamina and New Hope.
It is also not clear whether Abbas will now have legitimacy from his constituents – following the events of the last few days – to sit in a government with the right-wing Bennett serving first as prime minister. It was Abbas himself who froze coalition negotiations this week, but then said later that they would be restarted after the fires stop.
“I call for calm,” Abbas wrote in his Facebook post in Arabic. “We must prevent further escalation that could claim human lives on both sides, and allow a return to a normal routine of life.”
The Ra’am chairman – whose willingness to cooperate with any Israeli government, even if led by the right wing, cast him in the role of kingmaker and seemingly placed the country on the cusp of a breakthrough in Jewish-Arab relations before this week’s rioting – said in the Facebook post that violence needed to be rejected to “maintain the tolerant and delicate fabric of relations between the Jewish and Arab citizens of the state. All demonstrators must exercise their legal and legitimate right to demonstrate and express their position legally and responsibly, but without harming human life or public and private property.” He did not relate to events in Gaza.
Another member of his party, MK Saeed Alharomi, was reading from a different script, however, calling Israeli actions in Gaza a “great crime” meant to extricate Netanyahu from his legal woes.
On Thursday, Abbas – in an interview with Army Radio – said that the current riots show the reason that Arab parties need to be a part of the government.
“I am not giving up on future cooperation,” he said. “It could be that these incidents emphasize the need for a true partnership with understanding, initiating together.”
Abbas continued: “A few days ago we were in a different place, the atmosphere was different. There is currently a crisis; we can overcome it. Maybe political cooperation at the level of government is part of the solution.”
He said he wanted to focus on the current crisis and deal with the political issues later.
Even if he is willing to sit with Bennett, there are strong forces inside Yamina that want to reassess things. It’s one thing for a right-wing party to be willing to rely on the support of a non-Zionist Arab party when everything is humming along nicely in the country. But it is quite another thing to do this when the headlines in the papers echo headlines during Arab riots against Jews 100 years ago when the British ruled the country.
THIS WEEK’S events highlighted one of the basic weaknesses of attempts to form a government with parties on the hard Right – such as Yamina – and those on the hard Left, such as Meretz, relying on support from an Arab party. Such an arrangement may work when things are running smoothly. But in this country, periods of harmony are too often short-lived.
The premise of the Lapid-Bennett “unity” government was that it would be possible to put aside sharp ideological differences and focus on the immediate domestic problems. As Bennett said during the campaign: It’s all about the coronavirus and its economic fallout. Everything else can wait.
Bennett was able to say that during the campaign because at that time everything was focused on the coronavirus, and few were thinking about Hamas or the Palestinians, something evident by the almost nonexistent role those issues played in the last election campaign.
But as much as one might want to ignore those issues, they are not disappearing, and will surely erupt at one time or another.
That they erupted now makes the coalition talks much more difficult. But had they erupted after the formation of a Bennett-Lapid-Horowitz-Michaeli-Liberman government, it likely would have brought that government down, as the parties have fundamentally different ideas about how the issue should be managed.
In 1996, just as it appeared that then-prime minister Shimon Peres – backed strongly by US president Bill Clinton – would handily win an election he initiated, Hamas went on a horrific suicide bombing campaign that many, including Peres, believed was instrumental in his losing to Netanyahu by a razor-thin margin.
How ironic that, 25 years later, that same terrorist group – this time employing missiles over Tel Aviv rather than explosive belts attached to suicide bombers in Jerusalem – may be responsible for keeping a right-wing government, if not Netanyahu himself, in power.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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