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Israel: Netanyahu seeks rabbinical help to bring Jewish supremacists and Islamists together

Prime minister on the verge of being cast into opposition for the first time since 2009
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to a hearing of his corruption trial at the Jerusalem district court, 8 February 2021 (AFP)

With just hours left to form a government, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought rabbinical help as he attempts to bring far-right Jewish supremacists and Islamists together.

Failure to do so before midnight will see the mandate to form a government taken away from Netanyahu and passed instead by President Reuven Rivlin to one of the prime minister's rivals, increasing the chance that Netanyahu's Likud Party will sit in opposition for the first time since 2009.

Four elections in two years have failed to produce a result that allows either Netanyahu or his rivals to form a stable government. In the most recent vote, in March, Likud won 30 seats but has struggled to bring enough allied parties on board to reach the 61 majority needed to govern.

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To do so, Netanyahu needs to convince the Religious Zionism slate to sit in a government supported by Raam, a Palestinian Islamist party.

With Religious Zionism's leaders outright refusing to make any such deal, Netanyahu has appealed to high figures in the rabbinical establishment who are close to the party, urging them to weigh in with religious interpretations that will allow them to sit down with Raam.

In theory, Rivlin could give Netanyahu an extra two weeks to seek a deal, as he did in April 2020. But with the premier seemingly far from finding the solutions he needs to get to 61, the president will likely turn to either Naftali Bennett or Yair Lapid.

If no one else is able to form a government, Rivlin must ask parliament to find a route out of the deadlock. If it cannot, Israelis will be asked to go back to the polls once again.

Religious blessings

Netanyahu is fighting for his career - and possibly his freedom too. He is facing corruption charges, which he denies, and he could face a jail sentence if found guilty. 

In recent days, he offered Bennett a deal that would see Netanyahu's former protege and head of the Yamina party get the first stint as prime minister in a rotation agreement. Even then, the coalition would not cross the 61-seat threshold.

To do that, Netanyahu has reportedly been consulting with the religious establishment.

Haim Meir Drukman, a senior rabbi close to Religious Zionism, has met Mansour Abbas under pressure from Netanyahu, Kan News reported, but refused to back the prime minister's scheme to have Raam support a right-wing government from the outside.

'Arabs are citizens of the State of Israel since its establishment, they should receive everything that the State of Israel gives, but they do not control the State of Israel in government'

- Haim Meir Drukman, senior rabbi

Drukman told Kan News that he dismissed the idea, as forming an Israeli government should be done by "Jews… not non-Jews".

“Arabs are citizens of the State of Israel since its establishment, they should receive everything that the State of Israel gives, but they do not control the State of Israel in government,” he said, referring to Palestinian citizens, who make up 20 percent of the country’s population.

Bezalel Smotrich, the head of National Union-Tkuma, part of the Religious Zionism political alliance, said after meeting Drukman on Monday: “We shall never fold our flag or sell out our values… We are resilient in our position not to take part in a government that depends on people who deny our existence as a Jewish state.”

Smotrich has taken a hard line and used inflammatory rhetoric regarding Raam from the moment the prospect of the Islamist party being part of a Netanyahu government was first mooted, back in January.

He has described Abbas’s party on many occasions as one that “supports terrorism and opposes the definition of the State of Israel as a Jewish state”.

Rabbi Zvi Thau, the spiritual leader of Noam, another party in the Religious Zionism alliance, has appealed to Smotrich to accept Netanyahu's proposal and cobble together a government with Raam.

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In a long letter, Thau outlined his religious interpretation of forming a government with non-Jews and talked about a “leftist plot” to unseat Netanyahu from power.

“The extreme ‘progressive’ left is ready to realise its dangerous ideas, such as the repeal of the Nation State Law, and the declaration of the state as the state of ‘all its citizens,’” Thau wrote on Sunday, referring to controversial legislation that enshrined Jewish supremacy over other communities.

“Relying on non-Jews to form a government… is a great desecration of God’s name,” Tau wrote, adding that Israel would descend into a state of chaos if it failed to form a government.

“Lending a hand to the destructive, abolishing the State of Israel as a Jewish state and all that this entails is a terrible desecration of God’s name,” Tau warned.

“On the contrary, the success of setting up a government that will care for the good of Israel, that will take care of the holy things of Israel, is a greater sanctification of God’s name, and a sanctification of God’s name is greater than a desecration of God’s name.”