Arab Party, Former Ally May Turn Out to Be Netanyahu’s Salvation

An Arab party and a technology millionaire more hawkish than Benjamin Netanyahu are emerging as must-have partners for the Israeli prime minister as he maneuvers to hang on to his job after another inconclusive election.

Preying on anti-Arab sentiment was a hallmark of Netanyahu’s past election campaigns. This cycle, he changed tack and promised to address longstanding problems besetting the Arab minority that makes up a fifth of Israel’s population. The tactic drove a wedge through a unified Arab bloc of parties and left a small Islamist faction open to cultivation.

Final results aren’t in yet from Tuesday’s cliffhanger vote, but they tentatively give that breakaway faction, the United Arab List, known by its Hebrew acronym Ra’am, five of parliament’s 120 seats. With Netanyahu and declared allies nine seats short of a parliamentary majority, the Arab slate and the predominantly religious-nationalist Yamina party appear to be indispensable to any government he would hope to form.

Arab Party, Former Ally May Turn Out to Be Netanyahu’s Salvation

With 90% of the votes in, Yamina is on track to win seven seats. Its chairman Naftali Bennett, who has served in previous Netanyahu governments, challenged him directly in this election, but hasn’t said whether he’d join a government led by his ex-boss to avoid a fifth round of balloting since April 2019.

It’s not clear that Bennett, an opponent of Palestinian statehood, and the United Arab List would even be willing to co-exist as Netanyahu allies. That the prime minister would have to rely on these two extremes is testament to how complicated his efforts to stay in office have become.

Retaining the premiership has been key to Netanyahu’s strategy for improving his legal prospects during his corruption trial. A sympathetic government would be able to pass legislation shielding a sitting leader from prosecution.

Individual Arab lawmakers have joined past Israeli coalitions as members of Zionist parties, but a slate of Arab candidates has never done so, due to a combination of mistrust among Jewish politicians and the unwillingness of Arab factions to serve in a Zionist government. During the 1990s, however, Arab parties agreed to vote with minority governments to prop up leaders seeking peace with the Palestinians.

The openness of United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas to Netanyahu’s overtures has made him a pariah in some Israeli Arab circles, and he was attacked at a recent anti-government protest. He says he’s trying to improve the lives of an under-served community where former political allies have failed, and that’s best done by working with the government.

While Israel’s Arabs are citizens with equal rights on paper, they face bias in employment, housing and public services. Strains deepened over a 2018 law defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. A recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that just over half of Jewish Israelis and three quarters of Israel’s Arab citizens oppose a coalition that relies on support from Arab parties.

It was to Bennett, and not Abbas, that Netanyahu appealed to openly on election night when he urged other right-wing parties to join his Likud in a coalition.

Bennett is a 48-year-old former military commando and tech entrepreneur who co-founded payment security company Cyota Inc., which was sold for $145 million to RSA Security LLC. He served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff from 2007 to 2008 and after breaking with him, headed the Jewish settlers’ council. He entered politics in 2012.

In Israeli terms, he is a moderate on some religious issues such as advocating pluralistic worship and respecting gay rights.

But on major diplomatic issues, Bennett takes a hard line. He loudly opposes Palestinian statehood and advocated annexing 60% of the West Bank before Netanyahu made it a campaign issue.

Last year he pronounced the world to be a “safer” place without an Iranian scientist that Tehran accuses Israel of assassinating.

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