During the April elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned time and again that if it gained power, the left would collaborate with Arab parties that he claimed were working to destroy the State of Israel. "It's Bibi or Tibi," the Likud faithful also warned, referring to the prime minister by his nickname and to Ahmad Tibi, the head of the Arab party Ta'al.
But now it seems that it is actually Netanyahu's own Likud party that is "collaborating" with Arab members of the Knesset.
They may argue and snarl for the cameras, but behind the scenes their relationship seems entirely different. Politics, as the old saying goes, makes for strange bedfellows.
Likud officials said Sunday that during the secret ballot for the new state comptroller earlier this month, Netanyahu's candidate Matanyahu Englman beat out the opposition pick Giora Romm thanks to Arab MKs who went for Englman in return for funds for their "five-year plan" for the Arab community.
One right-wing official said Sunday that, “While Netanyahu is warning the public that the Arabs are swarming (to the polls), it seems that he’s the one that is organizing secret pacts. It’s amazing when you find out it’s all for his own interests. It seems that in light of his legal woes and political mishaps he would even make a pact with (controversial former Arab MK) Hanan Zoabi."
In fact, the deal for comptroller isn’t the only instance of this collaboration. The opposition had some heavy criticism for the Arab factions after they voted for the dissolution of the Knesset in May - a move engineered by Netanyahu to avoid opposition leader Benny Gantz being invited to form the next government after the prime minister failed to do so.
While Netanyahu struggled to reach a majority to support the dissolution and subsequent fresh elections, it was actually the Arab MKs support him that helped him garner enough votes to do so.
The Arab Mks said they supported the dissolution of the Knesset out of their own considerations.
Over the last few days, Natan Eshel - who quit as Netanyahu's chief of staff in disgrace over alleged sexual misconduct, but who remains one of his closest allies - penned two articles calling for fresh ties between the right and the Arab bloc, based on economics, education, domestic security and other subjects important to the Arab community in Israel.
Political insiders said it is hard to believe that Eshel would publish such articles without conferring with Netanyahu first - and there are even those who believe Netanyahu is trying to bring the Arab parties into the fold, so that they would not back a different candidate for prime minister if and when the time comes.
Both the Arab parties and Likud deny any association with the other. “It never happened,” they proclaimed.
Arab MK Abd al-Hakim Hajj Yahya was more vehement in his denial of any cooperation on the selection of the new ombudsman.
“To say that we are working with Likud is one of the greatest lies told here. It’s factually wrong. (Arab faction) Ra’am–Balad supported Giora Romm," he said. "Our position on the dissolution of the Knesset was determined from the start. We wanted the elections to take place because then (the four Arab factions) could return to being one joint list and increase its strength.”
Meanwhile, Netanyahu ally and fellow Likud lawmaker Miki Zohar has denied that there was any official contract with the Arab parties, but confirmed that there was contact between the two sides.
“We didn’t try to contact them, they contacted us,” said Zohar, but said the prime minister rejected the proposal from the Arab MKs.
This is not the first time that the Arab parties have been accused of working with Likud. During the last Knesset, the opposition accused the Arab lawmakers of skipping certain Knesset votes due to deals with the coalition.