Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu had a tough night.
For all his declarations of a massive “victory” for the right wing during his middle of the night speech at Likud headquarters, the fact is that for the fourth election in a row Netanyahu has not been able to persuade Israel to give him a clear and convincing right-wing majority government.
With 87% of the vote counted, the pro-Netanyahu camp is currently on track to win only 52 solid seats – but they need at least 61 to form a government.
The anti-Netanyahu camp has only 50 seats.
Both sides desperately need to persuade Naftali Bennett and his Yamina party to join them.
But with Bennett underperforming – currently on track to win only 7 seats – even his support wouldn’t be enough for either side.
It’s still not clear that Bennett wants Netanyahu to be prime minister again.
Even if he does, Yamina would only bring Netanyahu to 59, still two seats short of a majority.
Suddenly, then, all eyes are on an obscure Arab-Israeli political leader named Mansour Abbas and his Ra’am party.
In a column in January for ALL ISRAEL NEWS, I wrote that Abbas was one of the 21 most interesting and influential Israelis to keep an eye on in 2021.
And now here we are.
Ra’am is an Islamist political party, Israel’s equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood.
For years, Ra’am was part of a bloc of Arab parties known as the Joint List. In the current Knesset, they have a combined total of 15 seats, one of the largest factions.
But Arab Israelis are increasingly furious with the Joint List because they never join any Israeli government, Thus they never have any leverage to fight for more funding for Arab communities, more police protection, more economic development and education programs and opportunities.
The Joint List just sits in the Knesset in the opposition year after year, railing against the government and voting against nearly everything, including the historic Arab-Israeli peace deals known as the Abraham Accords.
But as we have reported on ALL ISRAEL NEWS, the Israeli Arab sector wants their leaders to do more for them – to engage positively with the government, even to join the government.
Mansour Abbas is listening.
He announced late last year that he was open to joining a future Israeli Zionist government, even a Netanyahu government, so long as he could do more to help the Arab communities.
Ra’am then split away from the Joint List and declared they were running on their own.
For weeks, it looked like Abbas’ gamble was going to fail. Polls showed Ra’am not getting enough seats to enter the Knesset.
On Tuesday night, the exit polls made it look like Ra’am was finished.
But by Wednesday morning, the narrative changed.
Abbas and his party are now on track to win 5 seats.
Now Netanyahu has a huge decision to make – will he try to persuade Abbas to join his team?
If he does, and is successful, that could, in theory, give Bibi 64 seats.
But that’s only theory.
Would Netanyahu really want a Muslim Brotherhood-esque party in his camp?
Would other members of Likud, and other right-wing parties – including the ultra-Orthodox (Haredim) parties – go along with Abbas in their camp, much less as a cabinet member?
And does Abbas even want to help Netanyahu stay in power?
He has said publicly that he won’t rule it out.
But it’s also possible Abbas would prefer to be known as the Arab politician who ousted Netanyahu from power and ended Bibi’s career forever.
That would involve Abbas joining the anti-Netanyahu camp.
But who would lead that camp?
Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party have the most seats (17) in this camp.
But Bennett and Yamina say they won’t join a Lapid-led government.
Suddenly, then, both Netanyahu and the anti-Netanyahu camps need two men – Bennett and Abbas.
Whoever came up with the phrase, “Politics makes strange bedfellows,” wasn’t kidding.
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.