The results of last Tuesday’s ballot are too close to crown a winner, and the outcome now depends on who can convince the president they have the most realistic chance of building a stable government.
The United Arab List party — also known by its Hebrew initials, Ra’am — has four seats, which it could throw behind a Netanyahu-led coalition or behind his opponents.
Alternatively, it could support no-one, as Arab parties normally try to steer clear of coalition politics.
But Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas is different.
He broke away from the main Arab political alliance ahead of the election, and indicated that his party was even open to an agreement with Netanyahu, who is widely seen as antagonistic to Arabs.
And so Abbas is inundated with calls and requests for meetings both from Netanyahu’s Likud party and the politicians who are trying to build a non-Likud coalition: Yesh Atid, Blue & White, and Labour.
Before he decides which politician should attempt to form a government, President Reuven Rivlin meets representatives from each party and asks them who they believe should have the job.
Israel’s political establishment is now waiting, with bated breath, to hear who Mansour Abbas will recommend. Many are trying to influence what he tells the president before the meetings begin next week.
But that will not be the end of the Abbas drama. He holds so much in his hands that he could potentially drag out negotiations for weeks, considering offers from both sides to either facilitate their potential coalition or scupper that of their opponents.
The final election results put Likud and its allies at 52 seats, which will rise to 59 if Netanyahu can draw in Naftali Bennet’s right-wing Yamina. The anti-Netanyahu parties control 57 seats.
Both are short of a 61-seat majority; both could potentially reach this target if Abbas agrees to support them.
Abbas has met Yair Lapid, leader of the second-placed Yesh Atid, and sources said that the discussion was “excellent,” while there are reports that the Islamist party is leaning towards backing Netanyahu.
Meanwhile, Blue & White leader Benny Gantz has been tweeting warnings to Abbas. “Bibi is using you,” he cautioned, suggesting that he will renege on coalition deals that he makes.
It’s a familiar situation in Israeli politics: a small faction making gestures to different camps, asserting its value and in so doing raising its political price for cooperation.
What is unfamiliar is that the party in question is Arab and Islamist.
The new situation shifts assumptions of Israeli politics, thrusting such a faction to the centre, disrupting the assumption that Arab parties could only ever be compatible with a left-wing government, and also challenging the basic right-wing/left-wing parameter in Israeli politics.
After all, where does one plot Ra’am on this spectrum?
Several of its causes are often associated with the Israeli left: it wants a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, settlements dismantled, the release of Palestinian prisoners and the “return” of Palestinian refugees.
Inside Israel, it wants to change the controversial Nation State Law — which emphasises the Jewish nature of the state — by recognising Arabs as a “national minority” to bolster their rights, and to increase economic opportunities for Arabs.
This suggests it is most compatible with the likes of the left-wing Labour and Meretz in the anti-Netanyahu alliance. But on the other hand, it is socially extremely conservative, and Abbas famously spoke to an Israel news site in favour of conversion therapy for LGBTQ people.
This opposition to LGBTQ rights, and other aspects of a conservative agenda, make him a complicated partner for the left — and seemingly compatible with some of Netanyahu’s rightist allies, like the Religious Zionist faction, although their other differences are likely too large to bridge.
If it all seems like a puzzle that is too complex to complete, it may be because it’s exactly that.
Abbas’s power isn’t just the potential to make a coalition work, but also to ensure that no government-building attempts succeed, and send the nation back for yet another election.
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