Joint List holds talks with Blue and White on giving Gantz nod for PM

Arab-majority alliance says sides discussed cooperating on legislative issues and who they will recommend to president next week

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Blue and White MKs Ofer Shelah (L) and Avi Nissenkorn hold talks with Joint List MKS Mtanes Shihadeh, Ahmad Tibi, Aida Touma-Sliman and Mansour Abbas in the Knesset on March 11, 2020. (Courtesy)
Blue and White MKs Ofer Shelah (L) and Avi Nissenkorn hold talks with Joint List MKS Mtanes Shihadeh, Ahmad Tibi, Aida Touma-Sliman and Mansour Abbas in the Knesset on March 11, 2020. (Courtesy)

Senior lawmakers from the Blue and White party met with their counterparts in the Arab-majority Joint List on Wednesday to discuss the possibility of the Joint List recommending Benny Gantz as prime minister during consultations with President Reuven Rivlin next week.

Gantz, the head of Blue and White, needs the support of the Joint List to show he has enough backing to form a government, though some members of his party have balked at working with the Arab-led party.

Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi, who attended the meeting with fellow party member Aida Touma-Sliman and Blue and White MKs Ofer Shelah and Avi Nissenkorn, said the party had not made up its mind on how it would approach consultations with Rivlin, scheduled for Sunday.

“Now, we’ll return to our parties in order to reach decisions,” said Tibi. “Both parties reject the campaign of division and incitement,” he added, in an apparent reference to the efforts of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other right-wing lawmakers who have sought to delegitimize the Joint List in recent weeks.

A statement from Tibi and Touma-Sliman said the sides had discussed legislative priorities and the upcoming recommendation to Rivlin.

The Joint List is made up of four separate factions, which are not united on whether to endorse Gantz. In September, three of the four factions recommended Gantz, with ultra-nationalist Balad sub-faction refusing to join.

Blue and White remained mum after the meeting, not issuing a traditional statement and photo as it has done after sit-downs with other party representatives.

Ahmad Tibi (center) and colleagues from the Joint List arrive for talks with representatives of the Blue and White party, at the Knesset on March 11, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

The Kan public broadcaster reported that the sides did not even discuss the possibility of the Joint List backing a Gantz-led minority government from the opposition and instead were seeking to take things one step at a time, first dealing with the presidential recommendation which takes place before coalition negotiations can even begin.

According to Kan, the Joint List’s demands were related only to social issues, and it is saving the more controversial demands regarding diplomatic affairs for coalition negotiations.

Ahead of the meeting, Shelah told reporters in the Knesset, “The goal from our perspective is to reach a majority of MKs recommending [to the president] that Benny Gantz form the government, and to have a functioning Knesset starting this coming Monday.”

The Joint List-Blue and White meeting came against the backdrop of a major setback to the latter’s efforts at forming a minority government.  On Tuesday, Labor-Gesher-Meretz No. 2 MK Orly Levy-Abekasis declared she was opposed to the idea of such a coalition and announced she was no longer beholden to her left-wing political partners. This, despite having backed the idea of a minority government during the campaign along with other members of her party.

Gantz is seeking a Knesset majority for a government made up of Blue and White (33 seats), the hawkish Yisrael Beytenu (7 seats) and dovish Labor and Meretz (6 seats without Gesher leader Levy-Abekasis), and support from outside of the coalition for most or all of the Arab lawmakers of the Joint List (15 seats).

Earlier Wednesday, Gantz met with Labor-Gesher-Meretz chairman Amir Peretz  with the sides insisting afterward that they were still on track to form a government and oust long-serving premier Benjamin Netanyahu.

In a joint statement Wednesday, Gantz and Peretz seemed to brush the Levy-Abekasis setback aside and reaffirm their willingness to cooperate with the Joint List. They “agreed to continue their strategic partnership and to continue with efforts to form a government, harnessing all the partners in the political system to prevent Netanyahu and Likud from dragging the country to a fourth election,” the statement said.

MKs Orly Levy-Abekasis (L) and Amir Peretz at the Labor-Gesher-Meretz post-election event in Tel Aviv on March 2, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Peretz said in his own statement it was “important for me to clarify that despite developments” — an apparent reference to Levy-Abekasis’s announcement — “I have no intention of helping in the establishment of a narrow rightist government led by Netanyahu that stands opposed to my ideological worldview.”

Neither 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.

Gantz, meanwhile, has been working to swiftly put together a minority government with the backing of the Joint List and avoid having to compromise on a unity government with the Netanyahu-led Likud.

Also on Wednesday, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman said his party’s position against cooperating with the Joint List “has not changed,” amid reports he may agree to support a Blue and White-led government backed from the outside by the predominantly Arab slate.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, left, and Labor party leader Amir Peretz meet to discuss coalition talks, on March 11, 2020. (Blue and White/Elad Malka)

But he also dismissed the possibility of joining Netanyahu’s bloc and charged that the prime minister “cooperated with [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat and Arab parties more than anyone else.”

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. Netanyahu last week declared the Joint List was not part of the “equation” when it came to coalition calculations.

Benny Gantz, right, and Avigdor Liberman shake hands after a private meeting in the central city of Ramat Gan, on March 9, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)

A coalition backed by the Joint List, while “not the government we wanted,” is the only way to break the year-long political impasse, Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid argued in a Facebook post on Tuesday.

Such a bid remains a long-shot effort, however, as two right-leaning members of Gantz’s party, MKs Yoaz Hendel and Zvika Hauser, have openly rejected it and vowed to oppose it, and 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.

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