No majority without Levy-Abekasis, Hendel and Hauser

In blow to Gantz, Gesher’s Levy-Abekasis appears to doom minority coalition bid

Israel on brink of 4th election after MK says Joint List-backed government ‘violates basic norms and values,’ no longer beholden to pre-election merger with Meretz

MK Orly Levy Abekasis speaks during an campaign event in Tel Aviv for her Gesher party on February 5, 2019. (Flash90)
MK Orly Levy Abekasis speaks during an campaign event in Tel Aviv for her Gesher party on February 5, 2019. (Flash90)

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz suffered an apparently fatal blow in his efforts to form a government on Tuesday when Gesher MK Orly Levy-Abekasis said she would refuse to sit in a minority coalition backed by the Arab-majority Joint List, leaving Israel on the brink of a fourth election in little more than a year.

Levy-Abekasis, currently a member of the left-wing Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance, said in a Facebook post that a Joint List-backed minority government “violates basic norms and values,” that she would not vote for such a government, and that she no longer sees herself beholden to her alliance.

Without specifically naming Gantz, she accused him of breaking his promise to voters and “shamefully being willing to pay any price to anybody in order to form a minority government.”

Her statement came as it became apparent that Gantz was rapidly firming up plans to present for approval by the Knesset a government made up of Blue and White (33 seats), the hawkish Yisrael Beytenu (7 seats) and dovish Labor-Gesher-Meretz (7 seats), with most or all of the Arab lawmakers of the Joint List (15 seats) giving their backing from outside the coalition.

Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud nor Blue and White mustered a majority of Knesset seats in last Monday’s election, and neither has a clear path to a majority coalition. The prime minister has the backing of 58 MKs and Likud is the largest party in the 120-seat Knesset.

If Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu and the entire Joint List, which won 15 seats, were to recommend to President Reuven Rivlin that Gantz form the new coalition, he would have 62 backers and could get the nod.

Blue and White’s leadership met with Liberman on Tuesday for what the sides called a “positive and substantive” sit-down. The top four MKs — Gantz, Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi — took a photo with Liberman at the end of the meeting that they disseminated on social media.

Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Lieberman (C) meets Tuesday March 10 with Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz (2L), Yair Lapid (2R), Gabi Ashkenazi (R) and Moshe Ya’alon (L) (Courtesy/Elad Malka)

But with Levy-Abekasis’s rejection, along with the opposition of two right-wing lawmakers in Blue and White, Zvi Hauser and Yoav Hendel, who have also rejected a coalition based in Joint List support, Gantz would not have the 61 lawmakers necessary to confirm a government, even if all 15 of the Arab lawmakers were to back it.

This could doom Israel to a fourth election in just over a year, or give Netanayhu a majority if the three defected to the right-wing bloc, something they have vowed not to do.

“We are all witnessing leaders that promised to act in a trustworthy and responsible manner, involved in recent days in shameful lobbying and willing to pay any price to anybody in order to put together a minority government,” Levy-Abekasis said.

“It is no less alarming that far-reaching decisions like negotiating with the Joint List, including [sub-faction] Balad, are being taken by a small group who feel they speak on behalf of the whole (center-left) bloc,” she wrote.

“I will not support a government that leans on the Joint List and Balad and I don’t see myself as continuing to be beholden to the partnership with Meretz,” she said, adding that the merger was forced on her and Labor party leader Amir Peretz by Blue and White. She said she informed Peretz of her decision after the election.

However, Levy-Abekasis had previously indicated she would not be opposed to sitting in a government supported by the Joint List.

“I have no problem with them supporting from outside on social issues,” she told the Ynet news site last month. “We will form a government whose basic parameters will include issues for (all) citizens.”

Levy-Abekasis, a former Knesset member with the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu, split off to form her own party, Gesher, last year, but failed to make it into the Knesset in April.

She then merged with Labor ahead of the September elections, before that alliance joined with Meretz for the March vote. Though she largely focuses on social issues, the daughter of former Likud foreign minister David Levy has remained largely identified with the right.

Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi reacted to her announcement, tweeting: “At least we don’t have mandate thieves.”

Former Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg slammed Levy-Abekasis as “disgraceful and racist” and called on her to resign.

“The fact that she was elected to the Knesset on our backs, with the votes of men and women of the left who are committed to a Gantz government and to Jewish-Arab partnership — obliges her to give up her seat and resign,” Zandberg wrote. “She does not have a mandate to prevent a leftist government.”

Levy-Abekasis’s statement came hours after the Haaretz daily reported that Gantz plans to swiftly put together a minority government targeting March 23 as the deadline, so as not to allow Netanayhu time to try and sow discord and break the apparent fragile truce between Liberman and the Arab lawmakers.

The report said Gantz also planned to go ahead with the move despite opposition from Hauser and Hendel, believing that they will fall in line once a deal is done.

Knesset members Yoaz Hendel (L) and Zvi Hauser (R) seen at the Knesset , ahead of the opening session of the new government, on April 29, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Lapid on Tuesday defended his party’s plans to form a minority government propped up on the outside by the Joint List, saying it was the only way to avert the “catastrophe” of a fourth round of consecutive elections.

Such a coalition, while “not the government we wanted,” is the only way to break the year-long political impasse, Lapid argued in a Facebook post.

Yair Lapid (left) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz speak to supporters in Tel Aviv, on February 20, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

Apart from the opposition from the three MKs, it remains unclear whether the Joint List and Blue and White could reach an agreement. One of the demands previously raised by the Arab alliance has been Gantz’s rejection of US President Donald Trump administration’s peace plan, which the former army chief of staff has endorsed.

“Contrary to the lies that Bibi [Netanyahu] is spreading, the Joint List would not be part of this government,” Lapid wrote Tuesday. “They will vote once from the outside [to back the government], and there it will end.”

Netanyahu “has cooperated with them [the Joint List] a thousand times before. I admit in advance, this is not the government we wanted. On the other hand, it’s far preferable to the current deadlock. Such a government could set a budget, the ministries would get back to work, the Knesset committees would open, we’ll help small businesses and prevent mass layoffs.”

Likud has attempted to portray the Joint List as out of bounds of Israeli politics, terming its members “terror supporters” and citing their opposition to Zionism and some extreme anti-Israel stances by members of Balad, one of the party’s constituent factions.

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)

Balad leader Mtanes Shihadeh on Tuesday said he would recommend that the Joint List refrain from backing any candidate for premier in its consultations with the president. He told the Voice of Palestine radio that the Joint List was waiting for an offer from Gantz and that no negotiations were currently being held.

Israel’s Arab lawmakers have long refused to join a government on ideological grounds, rooted in their support for the Palestinians. Jewish lawmakers have, mutually, seen the Arab parties as beyond the pale and generally refrained from including them in coalition calculi. Under its current leader, Ayman Odeh, however, segments of the Joint List have seemingly softened their opposition to such a partnership. After the previous national vote in September, the party backed Gantz for the premiership, breaking with its longstanding refusal to endorse candidates for prime ministers.

The relationship between the Jewish and Arab lawmakers, nonetheless, remains highly strained, marred by mutual distrust and disagreements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, settlement-building and Zionism. The tensions have been exacerbated by comments by hard-line Joint List members that have appeared to support violence against Israelis, as well as increasingly strident rhetoric about the Joint List, and the Arab Israeli community in general, from Jewish politicians, including Netanyahu.

In his comments Tuesday, Lapid wrote that the only alternative to a coalition voted in by the Joint List would be another election — the fourth in just over a year — which would be a “catastrophe.”

“We would go to fourth elections, like Bibi wants. Yes, it’s as terrible as it sounds. More elections, more baseless hatred, more incitement, more violence, billions more shekels wasted,” he wrote.

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