Israel’s Teetering Government Breathes Again as Arab Party Rejoins


A small Islamist party decided to end its freeze on participating in the fragile eight-way coalition, granting it at least a temporary reprieve.

JERUSALEM — Israel’s teetering governing coalition was granted at least a temporary reprieve from its latest crisis on Wednesday when one of its partners, a small Islamist party, agreed to rejoin the coalition.

The Islamist party, Raam, had suspended its involvement a month ago in protest of police actions at the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

The reversal highlighted both the fragility of the eight-way coalition, which yokes together politicians who would normally be bitter ideological opponents, and Raam’s pivotal but imperiled position.

It came in the first week of a new parliamentary session in which opposition parties had been counting on Raam’s support or acquiescence to dissolve Parliament and force an early general election, Israel’s fifth in less than four years.

But the party’s leader, Mansour Abbas, disappointed them, saying it was better for Israel’s Arab citizens if his party remained in the government.

“We are leading a political process of cooperation that is meant to provide an answer or a solution for the Arab citizens of Israel,” Mr. Abbas told reporters in the Parliament building on Wednesday, adding, “Raam has taken the initiative to take responsibility and to advance this process.”

Justifying the decision, Mr. Abbas listed many of the chronic problems facing Israel’s Arab minority, which makes up about a fifth of the population, including rampant crime and gun violence, inequality in housing and education, and the lack of municipal services in dozens of villages in the Negev desert, which the Israeli authorities do not recognize.

Despite the coalition’s current respite, recent developments have only underscored the diminishing prospects of the government, which was formed less than a year ago in an effort to end a chaotic political stalemate that resulted in four general elections over a period of less than two years.

Headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of Yamina, a small right-wing party, it brought together parties from the left, center and right, as well as the conservative Islamic party, driven mainly by a desire to keep the former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu out of power while he stands trial on corruption charges.

Mr. Bennett’s coalition already lost its razor-thin majority last month when a member of his party, Idit Silman, the coalition’s chairwoman and effectively its chief whip, resigned, leaving the government and the opposition in a tie in the 120-seat Parliament.


In announcing her resignation, Ms. Silman stated that the government’s direction did not reflect the values of the right-wing voters who brought Mr. Bennett’s party to power. She said it was time to change course and to try to form a new “national, Jewish, Zionist” coalition with right-wing lawmakers.

The situation has made Mr. Abbas, 48, the convivial leader of Raam and a dentist by profession, one of the most closely watched figures in national politics, as he holds the keys to the longevity of the government.

Political observers waited anxiously on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning for a decision from Raam’s advisory body, the Shura Council of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, regarding the party’s participation in the coalition.

The decision to stay in the coalition may also have been influenced by recent polls showing that Raam, which was the first independent Arab party to join an Israeli governing coalition, might not gain enough votes in a new election to make it back into Parliament.

Mr. Netanyahu, now the opposition leader, and his conservative Likud party have used Mr. Bennett’s dependence on Raam and Mr. Abbas to rally their base, while vilifying Raam’s lawmakers as supporters of terrorism.

“The whole country has seen that Naftali Bennett’s government of surrender and weakness is being held hostage by the Shura Council,” Mr. Netanyahu said on Wednesday.

Mr. Netanyahu has denied that he, too, held negotiations with Mr. Abbas in a desperate attempt to form a majority coalition after the last election. Mr. Abbas said Wednesday that he had documentation of those negotiations on his cellphone and threatened to make some of it public.

The Islamist party’s temporary withdrawal from the coalition last month followed several confrontations between the Israeli police and Muslims at the Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, a site sacred in both Islam and Judaism, and known to Jews as the Temple Mount.

The police said they were responding to violent disturbances in the compound involving Palestinian stone throwers, and were acting to secure the compound for Jewish and other non-Muslim visitors and Muslim worshipers alike, but the police actions on a holy site were deeply embarrassing to Raam.

The government has been further tested by a surge in deadly terrorist attacks in cities across Israel since late March. Arab assailants wielding guns, knives and an ax have killed 19 people over that time.

Israel has responded by stepping up its counterterrorism operations in the occupied West Bank. More than 30 Palestinians have been killed, according to local news reports, most of them involved in attacks, attempted attacks or confrontations with Israeli forces, although some were unarmed or apparently caught in crossfire.

Raam’s timeout from the coalition had little direct impact on the government, since the Parliament was in recess over the past month.

But operating without a majority, the coalition will nevertheless find it difficult to function and pass legislation. And since the Parliament will be dissolved automatically if the government fails to approve a budget by a deadline next March, many Israelis expect to be heading back to the polls soon enough.


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