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The Electoral Math Behind Netanyahu's Sudden Affinity for Arab Lawmakers

The prime minister's main goal is to break up the 61 seat bloc Gantz can muster if he cooperates with the Joint List, prevent the latter from dissolving the Knesset whenever it's convenient for him

Chaim Levinson
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Members of the Joint List at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, September 2019. Mansour Abbas, right, Ahmad Tibi, Ayman Odeh and Osama Saadi.
Members of the Joint List at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, September 2019. Mansour Abbas, right, Ahmad Tibi, Ayman Odeh and Osama Saadi.Credit: Emil Salman
Chaim Levinson

Likud MKs believe that the party’s investment in the Joint List’s Ra’am (United Arab List) faction, headed by MK Mansour Abbas, will enable it to break up the opposition and prevent Defense Minister and Alternative Prime Minister Benny Gantz from advancing legislation against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At the same time, Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman told Army Radio on Wednesday that the Knesset believes Abbas will support legislation that helps Netanyahu or will end up a minister in his government, in return for which the premier will promote the lowering of the electoral threshold, which would allow Ra’am to break off from the Joint List and run independently in the next election.

Last month Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin made great efforts to court Ra’am, one of the four parties that make up the Joint List. Ra’am members are considered easy to work with by the coalition, because the are willing to offset MKs who must be absent from the plenum. Still, if things come to a public confrontation between Likud and the Joint List, Ra’am will always choose to side with the latter. Thus, earlier this week Ra’am voted against the normalization agreement with Bahrain.

Joint List Knesset members
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Nevertheless, on the background of the normalization agreements with Arab states and the Joint List’s internal rifts, Likud has noticed a change in the Ra’am MKs, which Netanyahu is exploiting to deepen the divisions in the Joint List. On Sunday Netanyahu attended a discussion by the Special Committee for Eradicating Crime in the Arab Sector, which is chaired by Abbas – even though he rarely attends Knesset committee meetings, and frequently attacks his rivals for the willingness to cooperate with the Joint List.

Netanyahu’s main goal is to break up the 61 MKs that Gantz can muster if he cooperates with the Joint List, and thus prevent the latter from dissolving the Knesset at a time convenient for him, or advancing legislation that will prevent Netanyahu from forming a government in the future. But many Netanyahu associates are skeptical that his move will work, with several of his aides convinced that Abbas would never harm the Joint List to help Netanyahu.

“For two years, the prime minister has not appeared at any committee meeting, and suddenly out of nowhere he appears at the Abbas committee,” Lieberman said Wednesday. “I’m looking at Abbas’ own declaration that he doesn’t invalidate supporting laws that benefit Netanyahu. I’m looking at Abbas and Yariv Levin as one helps the other remove from the agenda and change the vote on a parliamentary inquiry committee on the submarines issue. You put one and one together.” Similarly, Lieberman cited opinion pieces written by Netanyahu associate Natan Eshel on the need for cooperation between Likud and the Arab parties.

Last Thursday, in an interview with Radio Anas, Abbas said he wouldn’t dismiss supporting legislation to freeze Netanyahu’s trial. The choice of Matanyahu Englman as state comptroller was attributed to the “defection” of Ra’am members from the opposition ranks, in addition to Abbas’ support for canceling the vote that approved the establishment of an inquiry committee on the submarine procurements.

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