As Joint List backs Gantz, Netanyahu says: I told you so

Likud leader says he will form a ‘broad national unity government,’ though his rival appears more likely to get first crack at building coalition

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressees his supporters at party headquarters after elections in Tel Aviv, September 18, 2019. (Ariel Schalit/AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressees his supporters at party headquarters after elections in Tel Aviv, September 18, 2019. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday furiously condemned the Joint List’s endorsement of his rival Benny Gantz for prime minister, while vowing he would form a “broad national unity government.”

“Citizens of Israel, this happened just as we warned: the Arab Joint List recommended Benny Gantz for prime minister,” Netanyahu said in a video statement.

“There are two possibilities now: either a minority government will be formed that relies on those who reject Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and glorify terrorists that murder our soldiers and citizens, or a broad national government will be formed,” he continued.

“I know what the answer is and so do you, and therefore I’ll do whatever I can to form a broad national unity government. There is no other solution,” added Netanyahu.

Earlier Sunday, in a dramatic shift, the alliance of Arab-majority parties recommended Gantz for prime minister in a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin, seemingly paving the way for the centrist party to get the first crack at assembling a coalition.

The Joint List’s decision marked the first time Arab parties — separately or together — have recommended a mainstream Zionist politician since 1992, when two Arab-majority parties supported Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin, who campaigned on peace with the Palestinians.

With the endorsement of the party, which holds 13 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, Gantz was expected to receive 57 recommendations for the premiership, compared to 55 right-wing and religious votes for Netanyahu. Compounding its chances of receiving Rivlin’s endorsement, Blue and White won two more seats than Likud in Tuesday’s election.

Still, reports said Blue and White preferred to be tasked second with building a government — after Netanyahu fails to do so.

Despite the endorsement, and Netanyahu’s dire warnings, Joint List leaders said the Arab alliance would not join a governing coalition, making Gantz’s coalition-building attempt unlikely to be successful without the inclusion of Likud, the ultra-Orthodox parties, or Yisrael Beytenu. Gantz has insisted that Netanyahu, who is facing a looming criminal indictment, relinquish the premiership as a condition for a Blue and White-Likud alliance.

Netanyahu’s Likud earlier on Sunday night condemned the Joint List’s support for Gantz as the Arab alliance met with Rivlin to issue its recommendation.

“The Likud will make every effort to establish a stable and strong government committed to maintaining Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. We can’t have a government that relies on Arab parties that oppose the State of Israel,” it said.

(L to R) Members of the Joint List Osama Saadi, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas arrive for a consulting meeting with the Israeli president, to decide who to task with trying to form a new government, in Jerusalem, on September 22, 2019. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Arab turnout in Tuesday’s election soared by 20 percent, after Netanyahu’s Likud campaign targeted Arab voters with inflammatory rhetoric, alleging fraud in Arab polling stations and warning Gantz would form a coalition with the backing of the Arab parties.

“We and our public has proved that there is a price for incitement,” said Joint List Ayman Odeh on Sunday, after the meeting with Rivlin. “We want to put an end to the Netanyahu era. Our public has done half the journey, we are completing it. This was perhaps the hardest decision in my life, but we are fulfilling the will of our public.”

“We have seen the hardest election since 1948 in terms of the incitement against Israel’s Arab citizens,” Odeh told Rivlin upon issuing the recommendation. “We have been turned into a group that is not legitimate in Israeli politics. If we are being pushed out, we will take our rightful place. For us, the most important thing is removing Benjamin Netanyahu from power.”

“So we will recommend Benny Gantz to form the next government,” added Odeh.  The Joint List alliance made the announcement at roughly the same time as Odeh published an opinion piece on the New York Times website speaking of the move.

Both Odeh and Tibi said they would not join a governing coalition.

The president has the power to appoint one of the 120 MKs elected on Tuesday as the next potential prime minister of Israel. The designated lawmaker must then attempt to cobble together a coalition that wins the support of a majority of Knesset members.

Not all Joint List members were pleased with the decision: MK Mtanes Shihadeh told The Times of Israel that the three members of the Balad faction within the Joint List skipped the meeting with Rivlin. He said his party opposed recommending Gantz, while the other three parties that make up the Joint List supported the move.

In a statement, Balad said it rejected “General Benny Gantz” because of his “Zionist ideology, his right-wing positions that are not much different than the Likud, his bloody and aggressive military history.”

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman announced earlier on Sunday that he would recommend neither candidate for prime minister, citing the Joint List’s backing for Gantz.

“The Joint List are our enemies,” said Liberman. “Wherever they are, we will be on the other side.” Liberman has also ruled out backing Netanyahu.

Israeli ex-defense minister Avigdor Liberman speaks to members of his party Yisrael Beytenu, during a meeting in the cooperative Israeli village of Yad Hashmona near Jerusalem on September 22, 2019. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

In Tuesday’s election, Gantz’s Blue and White emerged as the larger party according to almost-final results, at 33 seats, while incumbent premier Netanyahu’s Likud won 31. Netanyahu heads a right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc of 55 MKs. Gantz heads a bloc of 44 centrist and left-wing MKs, with another 13 for the Arab MKs.

As the consultations kicked off, Blue and White backed Gantz for prime minister, while Likud recommended Netanyahu.

Speaking to the party’s representatives, Rivlin urged a national unity government.

“We all understand that a stable government, one that can prevent third elections for at least a year, is one that will need to include both of the two major parties,” Rivlin said.

Shas and Yisrael Beytenu will also meet with Rivlin on Sunday, with the remaining parties set to meet with the president on Monday. As expected, Shas threw its weight behind Netanyahu.

Once a candidate is chosen by the president, that individual has 28 days to present a coalition to the new Knesset and win a vote of confidence. The president is allowed to extend that period by up to 14 days.

Rivlin has promised to do “everything in his power” to prevent the country from heading to an unprecedented third consecutive election within a year.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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