Leaked Smotrich comments begs the question: Why is working with Ra'am bad?

The context of Smotrich's remark was whether Netanyahu was willing to rely on support from Ra'am Party to form a government after the last election.

 Head of the Religious Zionist Party MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks next to Head of opposition Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting with the opposition parties at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, on June 28, 2021.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Head of the Religious Zionist Party MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks next to Head of opposition Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting with the opposition parties at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, on June 28, 2021.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

It’s not every day that a senior politician is caught on tape calling the man he wants to see become prime minister a “lying son of a liar.” But that is precisely what happened when a recording of a private conversation with Religious Zionist Party head Bezalel Smotrich became public on Sunday.

The context of Smotrich’s remark was whether Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu was willing to rely on support from Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am (United Arab List) Party to form a government after the last election. Netanyahu has insisted publicly that he was not. Smotrich bluntly said the former prime minister was lying.

And that was not the only unflattering manner in which Smotrich spoke of his political ally. He also said Netanyahu was “trouble” and eventually would no longer be strutting across the country’s center stage.

“Physics and biology will take their course; he will not be here forever,” Smotrich said. “At some point, he’ll be found guilty in court or something like that.”

It was only natural that in follow-up interviews Smotrich gave to numerous media outlets on Monday, he was asked repeatedly whether he now trusts Netanyahu, why he thinks the former prime minister is “trouble” and if he believes Netanyahu is guilty of the crimes he has been accused of.

 RELIGIOUS ZIONIST Party chairman Bezalel Smotrich discusses party policy at a news conference.  (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90) RELIGIOUS ZIONIST Party chairman Bezalel Smotrich discusses party policy at a news conference. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

And, just as naturally, Smotrich – a polished politician – evaded those questions.

Ra'am in the government?

But that line of questioning misses the real point, and it is a point Israeli society needs to address. What is bad about working with Ra’am?

Why is it verboten to want to incorporate into the coalition an Arab party that – while it might not be Zionist – recognizes Israel as an established fact and wants to work with it, not fight against it?

The overriding reason Ra’am wants to work with the government is to sit around the table, where the budgetary pie is being cut up, so it can get an equitable slice for its constituents. It wants influence inside the government so problems plaguing the Arab sector make it to the top of the nation’s agenda.

True, Ra’am’s interest in being a part of the government stems from a realization that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. But what’s wrong with that?

Arabs make up a fifth of the country’s population, and it is in Israel’s interest that they integrate, feel a part of the country and feel they have a stake in it.

There is an element among the Arab population that sees Israel as illegitimate and the root of all evil and which is radially anti-Zionist and anti-Israel. But there is another element that understands Israel is not going anywhere and wants to cooperate with the state for its own benefit.

Ra'am Party leader Mansour Abbas.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Ra'am Party leader Mansour Abbas. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Israel should encourage the latter trend and discourage the former. Abbas represents those who want to work with the state. As such, a willingness to incorporate his party into a coalition should be seen as something positive, not as a mark of Cain. This is not something that Netanyahu should lie about or deny. Rather, it is something that he should actually trumpet.

Had Netanyahu not had a positive relationship with Abbas and Ra’am when he was prime minister, had he not held talks with the party, it is difficult to believe that former prime minister Naftali Bennett would have joined a government with the Arab party’s support. Netanyahu, while in office, legitimized working together with Ra’am. That, too, will go down as part of Netanyahu’s legacy, most likely on the positive side of the ledger.

A KAN News poll this week found that while 48% of the Jewish public still opposes including Arab parties in the coalition, another 52% is either in favor (26%) or does not know (26%).

Had that question been asked three or four years ago, when the prospect of an Arab party in the coalition was very remote, the numbers of those opposing it would have been much higher. The public is slowly getting used to the idea, and that is positive.

It’s definitely not something Netanyahu should feel the need to lie about. That he did feel such a need, at least according to Smotrich, is unfortunate on more than just the level of personal integrity.