Head of Arab nationalist faction in Joint List sets terms for supporting Gantz

Head of Arab nationalist faction in Joint List sets terms for supporting Gantz

Blue and White must agree written deal with Arab alliance, annul controversial laws seen as discriminatory, says Mtanes Shihadeh – still noncommittal on his Balad faction’s backing

Mtanes Shihadeh, leader of the Balad faction of the Joint List, at an election campaign event, August 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari / Flash90)
Mtanes Shihadeh, leader of the Balad faction of the Joint List, at an election campaign event, August 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari / Flash90)

If the Blue and White party wants the support of the Joint List, it will have to make an official approach and openly request coalition negotiations with the mostly-Arab alliance, Mtanes Shihadeh, the leader of the alliance’s Balad faction, said Sunday in an interview with Army Radio.

“The Joint List won’t repeat the mistake of three months ago to recommend [Blue and White Leader] Benny Gantz without any commitment, without any agreement, without anything written,” Shihadeh said. “We saw what happened last time: The Joint List made its recommendation and Gantz basically broke right, adopting all the Likud party’s positions.”

Shihadeh added that the Joint List would have a number of demands in exchange for its support, among them “annulment of the Kaminitz Law and the Nation State Law, an economic program [to improve the economic situation of Israel’s Arab minority], a peace process, a change in the status of the Arab population in Israel, and annulment of discriminatory laws that significantly change the standing of the Arab population.”

The Kaminitz Law, a 2017 amendment to the Planning and Building Law, was aimed at strengthening “enforcement and penalization of planning and building offenses.” However, critics, among them Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, charge that it would have “a disparate impact on Arab citizens of Israel as it fails to take into account the decades of systematic discrimination in state land planning and allocation against them that has resulted in a severe housing crisis in Arab towns and villages.”

President Reuven Rivlin (right) presents Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz with the mandate to form a new Israeli government, after PM Netanyahu’s failure to form one, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, October 23, 2019. (GALI TIBBON / AFP)

Arab lawmakers have said the law was designed to hurt their constituents while ignoring the difficulties Arabs face in obtaining authorization for construction.

The nation-state law enshrined Israel as the exclusive nation-state of the Jewish people, drawing protests from Druze and Arab minorities who said the legislation created official discrimination between Jews and non-Jews.

Balad is a nationalist Arab-majority party that was established in the 1990s.  Balad adamantly rejects the notion that Israel is an exclusively Jewish state and strongly supports turning it into a country with equal national and civil rights for Arabs and Jews. Balad also aims for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital alongside a binational Israel and a “just resolution” to the refugee issue on the basis of UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

While Shihadeh said his faction would not actively support the Joint List recommending to President Reuven Rivlin that Benny Gantz be tasked with forming a government, it would accept whatever decision the Joint List made.

“Balad’s position is clear: We will recommend not to recommend, but we will hear the position of the other [parties in the Joint List] and we will make a decision together,” Shihadeh said.

Questioned on the apparent contradiction in his statement, Shihadeh repeated that Balad’s position was well known and that it would not support Gantz, but would respect the Joint List’s decision.

After the last round of elections in September, the Joint List, a political alliance of the Arab political parties in Israel — Balad, Hadash, Ta’al and the United Arab List — recommended to Rivlin that Gantz be tasked with forming a government. However, it did so without the support of Balad’s three Knesset members.

The Joint List received 15 seats in last week’s election, an improvement of two seats on its showing in the previous round of elections. Balad still has three of the seats.

“What the close to 600,000 Arabs who voted for the Joint List were in fact saying was that they wanted to change their political status in the country. Therefore our main mission is to translate and express the will of the Arab voter,” Shihadeh said.

Ayman Odeh (C), leader of the Hadash party that is part of the Joint List alliance, gives an address with other alliance leaders at their electoral headquarters in Israel’s northern city of Shefa Amr on March 2, 2020, after polls officially closed  (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had contacted officials in the Joint List and offered to negotiate issues important to Arab lawmakers in exchange for the faction refusing to support Gantz’s candidacy for prime minister and opposing a legislative effort to bar the prime minister from office since he is under indictment, Channel 13 reported Saturday, citing Joint List sources. The sources claimed that among the Joint List officials contacted were members of Balad.

Netanyahu’s trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases is set to open on March 17.

There was no immediate reaction from Likud to the Channel 13 report.

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