Blue and White MK denies pressing Joint List to limit Gantz endorsement
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Blue and White MK denies pressing Joint List to limit Gantz endorsement

Ofer Shelah says he doesn’t determine who Arab MKs nominate for PM, after Ayman Odeh reveals talks to restrict support and give Netanyahu first crack at building coalition

Blue and White MK Ofer Shelah attends an event by the Women Wage Peace movement in Tel Aviv on September 6, 2019. (Flash90)
Blue and White MK Ofer Shelah attends an event by the Women Wage Peace movement in Tel Aviv on September 6, 2019. (Flash90)

Blue and White MK Ofer Selah on Thursday denied he requested the Joint List limit its endorsement of Benny Gantz for prime minister as part of strategy aimed at ensuring the centrist leader got the second shot at building a coalition, after Benjamin Netanyahu.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh said Monday night that only 10 of the 13 party MKs endorsed Gantz to President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday, partly at the request of Blue and White.

Odeh’s revelation came hours after Rivlin tasked Netanyahu with forming a governing coalition, after talks aimed at building a unity government of Likud and Blue and White appeared to collapse.

“I didn’t determine who the Joint List endorsed, or in what form,” Shelah said in an Army Radio interview.

“Ayman Odeh made a strategic decision as a leader to endorse a candidate for prime minister for the first time in 25 years, a decision that I think was merited, but that wasn’t at my initiative,” Shelah said. “I don’t decide how many of their MKs vote, or how the Balad party votes.”

Shelah confirmed he was in contact with Odeh and fellow Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi in recent days, but said discussions were focused on economic and social issues that affect Israel’s Arab minority, not the endorsement for prime minister.

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

In a Facebook video Wednesday night, Odeh said that after his party made the rare decision to throw its support behind Gantz, the Blue and White leader sent Shelah to ask it to limit its endorsement.

In their talks with Rivlin on Sunday, representatives of the mainly Arab Joint List said they were endorsing Gantz for prime minister. But in a letter released Monday, the Joint List clarified that only 10 of its MKs backed the move. The Balad party, one of its constituent parties, it noted, was not making a recommendation.

“The thing is that Gantz and Blue and White wanted the task of forming a government to be given first to Netanyahu,” Odeh explained to his constituents.

“Ofer Shelah came to me and he said: ‘Ten is enough.’ He said ‘don’t be 13. Why is ten enough and don’t be 13? So that [Blue and White] will have 54 [MKs recommending Gantz] and Netanyahu 55 [MKs recommending him], in order to give the task to Netanyahu first,'” Odeh said.

He said Blue and White was anticipating that Netanyahu would not be able to muster enough support to form a governing coalition, leaving Gantz a greater opportunity to do so in a second round.

“This was Blue and White’s logic in the last days before the recommendations,” he said.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (L), President Reuven Rivlin (C) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meet at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 25, 2019 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Odeh said the request from Blue and White came as his party was already debating a demand from the three Balad lawmakers to publicly distance themselves from the nomination of Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff.

Balad leader MK Mtanes Shihadeh told The Times of Israel on Sunday that his party opposed recommending Gantz, while the other three parties that make up the Joint List, Hadash, Ta’al and Ra’am, supported the move. Balad said in a statement later that it rejected “General Benny Gantz” because of his “Zionist ideology, his right-wing positions that are not much different from the Likud and his bloody and aggressive military history.”

The Joint List’s decision to back Gantz marked a dramatic departure from longstanding policy, with the party saying it was a necessary move to oust Netanyahu, but ruling out joining a coalition under his leadership.

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

There has been much speculation in recent days that neither Gantz nor Netanyahu was enamored by the prospect of being given the first shot at building a coalition, with both possibly preferring to take up the task only after the other has failed to muster a majority.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz looks on during a press conference in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, on September 19, 2019. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

“We’d rather be tasked [with forming a government] when the [other] parties are more flexible, rather than now, when they’re locked into their positions,” one source in the Blue and White party was quoted as saying on Sunday evening.

Standing alongside Netanyahu in the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Rivlin said that though neither the Likud head nor Gantz had the support of a majority of lawmakers, the premier had a better shot at forming a government.

“For me the only question is who has the best possibility to form a coalition. In this situation, 55 MKs supported Netanyahu and 54 supported Gantz. But 10 of those from the Joint List said they would not sit with Gantz, whereas the full bloc of 55 said they would support Netanyahu,” Rivlin said at his official residence, summing up his round of consultations with the various Knesset parties.

“So the chance of the prime minister to form a coalition is higher,” he said.

Netanyahu will now have 28 days to form a government, with a possible two-week extension.

If all attempts fail, Rivlin can then assign the task to someone else.

Netanyahu pledged Wednesday to let Rivlin hand the mandate to someone else if he does not succeed — rather than move toward new elections as he did when he failed to form a coalition following April polls.

Final results from September 17 voting gave Gantz’s centrist Blue and White 33 seats, ahead of right-wing Likud’s 32 out of a total 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Neither has a clear path to a majority coalition.

Netanyahu received the endorsement of 55 members of parliament for the post of prime minister after the election, while Gantz received 54.

AFP contributed to this report.

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