Balad said opposed to endorsing Gantz amid bid to woo Joint List in secret talks
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Balad said opposed to endorsing Gantz amid bid to woo Joint List in secret talks

Blue and White reportedly offered to ease tough law on illegal building, but Arab alliance has wider demands; 10 out of 13 Joint List MKs said to favor recommending Gantz

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Head of the Joint List party Ayman Odeh reacts as the first results in the Knesset elections are announced, September 17, 2019. (Basel Awidat/FLASH90)
Head of the Joint List party Ayman Odeh reacts as the first results in the Knesset elections are announced, September 17, 2019. (Basel Awidat/FLASH90)

The Blue and White party has established a secret back channel to communicate with the Joint List in an effort to convince the primarily Arab slate to recommend Benny Gantz be tasked with forming the next government, Channel 13 reported Saturday night.

The Joint List — an alliance of four parties — is said to be leaning toward endorsing the former IDF chief of staff, but three of its 13 newly elected Knesset members, from the Balad party, are reportedly opposed to the move.

Through the back channel, Blue and White officials have promised to advance several legislative efforts, including the revising of a law that gives significant penalties to individuals who carry out illegal construction, the TV report said. The Arab List has other, wider demands, however, including a resumed Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The so-called Kamenitz Law, passed by the Knesset in 2017, is an amendment to Israel’s Planning and Building Code enacted after the work of a special task force headed by Deputy Attorney General Erez Kamenitz.

Kamenitz formulated a package of legislative amendments to significantly improve the state’s ability to tackle illegal construction, creating additional tools for enforcement of the Building and Planning Code. This package of improvements, officially titled Amendment 116, included stiffer sanctions against building infractions and made it easier for inspectors to issue work-stop and demolition orders.

Head of the Joint List party Ayman Odeh (second from right) seen with party members during a faction meeting in Kfar Qasim, on September 21, 2019. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

Revising the law could benefit Arab Israeli towns where illegal construction is more common. Officials in those municipalities assert that the reason for much of the illegal construction is the government’s refusal to grant them sufficient building permits.

This carrot being offered by Blue and White to the Joint List is seen as a relatively easy one for it to put forward, however, because the law has also been opposed by officials in small Jewish towns. Ahead of last week’s election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself vowed to revise the law.

The Regavim watchdog that tracks illegal Arab construction released a statement slamming Blue and White’s reported offer, saying it would “give the green light to a frenzy of illegal construction in the Arab sector.”

News of the back channel broke hours after the Joint List met in an attempt to decide whether to back Blue and White leader MK Benny Gantz as prime minister.

The party will make its final decision on Sunday morning ahead of its meeting with President Reuven Rivlin later in the day. If they do decide to recommend Gantz, it will be the first time Arab parties have recommended a mainstream Zionist politician since 1992, when they supported Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin, who campaigned on peace with the Palestinians.

Blue and White party leaders, from the left, Gabi Ashkenazi, Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon greet their supporters at party headquarters after the first results of the elections in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

As reports swirled that the Joint List was gearing up to recommend Gantz, Balad chairman Jamal Zahalka, a former legislator, tweeted Saturday night that his faction could not support such a move because Gantz is a right-winger, wants to build a coalition with Likud, and has not committed to canceling the controversial Jewish Nation State Law or the Kamenitz Law.

While serving as Balad’s chairman, Zahalka is not himself an MK.

Speaking to supporters Saturday night in the northern town of Shfaram, incoming Balad MK and number 13 on the Joint List Sami Abu Shehada said that Gantz had asked the Arab slate to keep its talks with Blue and White quiet so as not to anger Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman.

Blue and White is also seeking recommendations from Yisrael Beytenu’s eight lawmakers, who will be meeting with Rivlin on Sunday afternoon. Liberman has ruled out sitting in a coalition with the Joint List and has regularly used the Arab lawmakers as his political punching bag, accusing them of being a “fifth column” seeking to destroy the state from within.

Tuesday’s election ended in an apparent deadlock, with Gantz’s Blue and White emerging as the larger party, at 33 seats, and incumbent premier Netanyahu’s Likud winning 31. Netanyahu heads a right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc of 55 MKs. Gantz heads a bloc of 44 centrist and left-wing MKs. If the Joint List recommends Gantz, the Blue and White leader would have the support of at least 57 members of Knesset. Yisrael Beytenu, with eight seats, holds the balance of power between the blocs and has yet to announce who, if anyone, it will recommend to Rivlin.

With Joint List support, Gantz would head both the biggest party and the biggest bloc in the new parliament, potentially giving Rivlin a clear basis on which to task him with building a government.

Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.

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