Muslim party may resume membership in Israeli coalition


Mansour Abbas, chairman of the Ra’am party was in Jordan April 28 for a meeting at the palace with King Abdallah II. Abbas had been invited to attend a Ramadan Iftar dinner, but after the meal was over, he and the king discussed the implications of the clashes between worshipers and Israeli security forces at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Abbas was the first Israeli politician to meet the king since the current tensions on the Temple Mount began.

In Israel, every meeting with the Jordanian king marks positive political points, especially with Israeli Arabs. This clearly shows why Prime Minister Naftali Bennett approved the trip. Bennett’s future and the future of the coalition depend on Abbas. Thus, a meeting at the palace, which benefits Chief Ra’am, has internal political implications in Israel.

When the Knesset returns from its spring break on May 9, the coalition will face a major fight for survival. It lost its narrow majority on April 6, when Knesset member Idit Silman of Yamina resigned.

Adding to this coalition disaster, the April 17 decision by Ra’am’s religious leadership, the Shura Council, to temporarily freeze all party activities within the coalition, in protest against Israeli aggression on the Temple Mount. It later emerged that the decision had been coordinated between Abbas and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. This unprecedented formula allowed the party to alleviate some of the public pressure it faced following the events on the Temple Mount.

That in itself was not a good sign for the troubled coalition. Ra’am was actually signaling that he is in trouble: if he fails to secure benefits for his electorate, he will be forced out of the coalition. It would mean the immediate collapse of the current government.

Abbas now holds the keys to the coalition’s survival. He is also under enormous pressure from certain factions of his party, who want to end their partnership with the government. It strives to prevent this, but without any guarantee of success.

The meeting between Abbas and the king could help stabilize the coalition by allowing Ra’am to reverse, however slightly, his total freeze on Knesset activity.

Abbas tells his Muslim religious base that he remains committed to them and their interests regarding the al-Aqsa Mosque. After all, Jordan is considered the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. A visit to the palace indicates the key role played by Abbas in determining Israeli policy, as well as the respect he has earned from King Abdullah.

On the other hand, images alone are not enough to quell unrest within the Arab-Israeli sector, instigated by Abbas’ arch-rivals in the Knesset, the Joint (Arab) List. Abbas needs to prove he got something from his partnership with the government, which is why he met Lapid last week and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday. He wanted to agree with them to join the coalition.

According to reports from these meetings, Abbas presented a list of conditions to Lapid and Bennett, including the immediate transfer of infrastructure and construction budgets for the Arab sector promised to him in the coalition negotiations; immediate recognition of unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev; and an increased Jordanian presence on the Temple Mount. People close to Bennett have made it clear that they have no intention of agreeing to this third condition.

Following Abbas’ meetings, senior coalition officials anticipate that at its May 15 meeting, the Shura Council will lift its full freeze on Ra’am’s participation in the coalition, although it will will ask to do it gradually.

It is clearly in Abbas’ interest to continue his party’s partnership with the coalition. The fact that the party, under his leadership, is part of the government in place is a historic first, whereas if the coalition falls, he will have to face a new election without having obtained real benefits for the Arab sector.

The tense verbal exchanges between Abbas and Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar in Gaza also have implications for the survival of the coalition. On Saturday, less than a day after the killing of a security guard in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, Sinwar accused Abbas of treason for being part of the coalition. “Serving as a safety net for this government is a criminality for which you [Abbas] will never be forgiven. You reject your religion, your Arab identity and your national identity.

Abbas did not hold back. He first said, “We will not be scolded by him“, and in another interview, Ra’am said that “the processes of partnership and tolerance that we carry out in Israel bring peace between Israel and the closer Palestinian people.

A senior coalition official sighed in relief. Abbas did not succumb to Sinwar’s pressure, nor did he apologize. On the other hand, they are also aware that the Arab sector in Israel hears all these criticisms, and that at least some members of the community are influenced by them.

Right-wing opposition parties, however, have claimed that the Temple Mount is now controlled by Abbas, Sinwar and King Abdullah. It also has an impact on members of the right-wing coalition, who are themselves under pressure from their electorate.

Bennett’s Yamina party is uneasy because of this. Reports indicate that Knesset Member Nir Orbach has privately admitted that he faces a complicated situation, which he personally finds difficult. He was further quoted as expecting the government to help him achieve certain achievements for the benefit of the right, which he can then present to his religious nationalist electorate.

To what extent do the members of Yamina really feel that the end is near? Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who is number two in the Yamina party, recently held a meeting with her ministry staff and other political figures, asking them to prepare to “empty their offices”. Shaked believes the coalition will only survive for a short time, so she wants it to complete the major reforms it has promoted.

Bridging the ideologies of Yamina and Ra’am, each with its own distinct religious base, will be difficult if security concerns escalate, especially for a coalition that has already lost its majority.


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