Israel Coalition Talks: Bennett's Party Expects to Form Gov't 'This Week,' After Meeting With Islamist Leader

Meanwhile, Bennett is gathering members of the anti-Netanyahu bloc for a meeting as some MKs mull leaving the faction amid mounting public pressure

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United Arab List Chairman Mansour Abbas, last month.
United Arab List Chairman Mansour Abbas, last month. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett met with United Arab List Chairman Mansour Abbas Sunday, leading members of his party to believe that a government may be formed 'this week,' ending Israel's political deadlock after four elections in under two years.

Sources in Yamina believe that Abbas will support a government led by Bennett and Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid so long as his demands are met. Abbas did not finish outlining his demands during his meeting with Bennett, but political sources said he is interested in joining the government. A trilateral meeting between Abbas, Bennett and Lapid is planned for Monday.

A source in Yamina told Haaretz, "There is a good chance a government will already be able to form a government this week."

Abbas has said he would not abstain during the vote on the next government, but will either support or oppose the government proposed by Lapid.

The bloc attempting to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that Abbas' support is critical: the UAL's backing would allow them to establish a coalition despite opposition from Yamina MK Amichai Chikli.

Bennett gathered the members of the anti-Netanyahu faction as coalition talks progress, over fears that some members of the bloc will not support a unity government. The meeting was scheduled for 11 A.M. Sunday in Ra'anana at Bennett's offices. Chikli, who vowed to oppose a unity coalition, was absent from the meeting. 

Though Yamina thinks it may have managed to thwart other desertions by party members in past days, who don't support the proposed unity coalition, there are fresh concerns that some will defect to the Likud following mounting public pressure. 

At the same time, if other party members do decide to come out against a potential coalition, the bloc is looking into the possibility that some members of the mostly Arab Joint List slate will support it, which would give it the majority it needs. At the moment, the Joint List from which Abbas' party split, does not intend to support the unity government, since the right-wing Bennet is expected to lead it, and he has expressed that he does not want the backing of the Joint List's members.

Abbas is expected to condition his support of a Bennett-Lapid government on a significant list of demands. Sources told Haaretz that he intends to demand that the bloc for change fulfill the promises he had already received from Netanyahu: government recognition of three Bedouin communities in the Negev and the establishment of a new Arab city in the south, particularly considering the large number of votes the United Arab List received from Negev Bedouin.

Abbas is also considering demanding that his party receive an additional, significant Knesset committee chairmanship – apparently the Interior Committee, in order to advance city planning and construction. Abbas is also expected to demand that he continue to head the Special Committee on Arab Society Affairs, of which he became chairman as part of his negotiations with Netanyahu.

Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett leaves the home of Labor chairwoman Merav Michaeli, Friday.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“Abbas will ask for a coalition agreement with detailed obligations,” the source familiar with Abbas’ plans sad. He added that Abbas “is considering demanding the repeal of the Kaminitz law, which calls for heavier penalties for construction offenses, rather than just suspending it.”

Tensions in Jerusalem, tensions in the bloc

Escalations in Jerusalem in recent days, and subsequent rocket and incendiary balloon attacks from the Gaza Strip, have sparked tensions in the bloc for change. The Joint List criticized Lapid for a tweet with regard to the recent clashes: “Anyone who wants to hurt us will know that he will pay a very heavy price.”

Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman said in response that Lapid had fallen into a trap set for him by Netanyahu, and Joint List chairman MK Ayman Odeh said: “Yair, meanwhile the State of Israel is not allowing freedom of worship. An entire people are under occupation, and only ending it will bring peace that will benefit both peoples.” However, members of the anti-Netanyahu bloc said they believe that the escalation so far has not impaired Bennett’s ability to rely on the Arab lawmakers, whether through their support or abstention.

The politicians are looking at Monday as another date that could impede talks. Along with Jerusalem Day and a march of right-wing activists through the streets of the Old City, the High Court of Justice is expected to publish its ruling on the matter of pending evictions of Palestinians from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

“Either way, we believe that the Arab community will pressure the Arab parties to allow the establishment of a unity government to replace Netanyahu. If nothing dramatic happens, the Arab parties will prefer to vote for or abstain as needed, and will not tank the coalition,” one source said.

Silent agreement

Negotiations for the establishment of the new coalition are advancing rapidly. An individual who spoke to Bennett over the last few days said: “It’s clear that he has decided to go with the unity government. He's working in fifth gear. He wants to end it quickly It feels like he's pushing Lapid into the government and not the other way around."

Sources in Yamina said that they had managed to stop any other lawmakers from refusing to support the unity government. One MK from the bloc for change told Haaretz: “There is a real attempt to finish building the coalition within days, even before Shavuot" – which falls on Monday – "to prevent additional pressure on Yamina lawmakers and their families over the coming weekend and the holiday that follows."

MKs from the center and left-wing parties have said over the past few days that they are under the impression they can reach understandings with Bennett on contentious issues. “Bennett realizes full well that the government will not be able to move ahead on annexation, will not recognize illegal outposts and will not expand outposts and settlements,” a person familiar with the talks said.

“The parties on the left will apparently silently agree with settlement expansion by means of natural population growth,” he added. The sides are also exploring the possibility of granting each of the new coalition's party veto rights over the issues most crucial to them. Such a decision would make it all but impossible for the government to advance issues that are not civil, economic or uncontroversial.

Marathon talks

Bennett and Lapid held a round of meetings on Friday with Knesset members who are expected to join the new coalition. These include New Hope chairman Gideon Sa’ar, Labor chairwoman Merav Michaeli, Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz, Kahol Lavan chairman and Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman. After the meeting Bennett said the chasms between the parties were “not easy to bridge.” However, he reiterated that he intended to exhaust all efforts to establish a unity government to avoid a fifth election.

In a Facebook post, Bennett wrote: “I want to stress two things: First, this was not my first choice. I went fully with Netanyahu from the moment he received the mandate [to form a government]. Netanyahu failed. He was unable to persuade [Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel] Smotrich to enter, and the rest is history. We have two options: a fifth election or a sincere attempt to establish a broad government.”

Bennett also wrote that he was “willing to go far and pay a personal political price with my base, just to establish a coalition.” Bennett said his guiding principles were “goodwill and the understanding that not all the issues in dispute between the right and the left for more than 70 years must be resolved now. We can agree to disagree. But there are core principles that I am not willing to compromise on and red lines that I won’t cross.”

After the meeting with Michaeli, sources close to her said the meeting was “optimistic” and that she had asked “to advance social agendas on various subjects.” They did not discuss ministerial portfolios or the coalition platform. They are slated to meet again soon, the sources said.

Meretz is expected to receive two ministerial portfolios in the new coalition, apparently for MKs Horowitz and Tamar Zandberg. Horowitz asked at the meeting for Meretz to be given the education portfolio, but Bennett said the issue is still in dispute. New Hope has asked that MK Yifat Shasha-Biton be given the post.

During the election campaign, Meretz pledged to promote the appointment of an Arab minister, but it seems that the portfolio distribution will not allow for this. Meretz therefore intends to ask that MK Esawi Freige be appointed chairman of a major Knesset committee. Meretz MK Yair Golan, a former IDF deputy chief of staff, is expected to be appointed to one of the top secret sub-committees of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. As part of the negotiations, the sides are considering a rotation for the post of Knesset speaker. It may be divided between Yesh Atid MK Meir Cohen and New Hope MK Zeev Elkin, who cannot be appointed minister – New Hope is slated at the moment to receive only two ministerial posts.

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