MK Shelah 'came to me and said: Ten is enough. Don't be 13'

Joint List leader says Gantz asked party to reduce support in tactical move

Ayman Odeh clarifies he was against move, but Balad faction in alliance was also insisting it did not want to back Blue and White leader

Left to right: Members of the Joint List party MKs Osama Saadi, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas arrive for a consultation with President Reuven Rivlin on who he should task with trying to form a new government, in Jerusalem on September 22, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Left to right: Members of the Joint List party MKs Osama Saadi, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas arrive for a consultation with President Reuven Rivlin on who he should task with trying to form a new government, in Jerusalem on September 22, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh on Wednesday confirmed Blue and White had approached the party with a request to clarify to the president that only 10 of its 13 MKs were recommending Benny Gantz as prime minister, as a tactical move aimed at ensuring the Blue and White leader got the second shot at building a coalition, after Benjamin Netanyahu.

In their talks with President Reuven 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.

Odeh’s comments, in a video posted to his Facebook page late Wednesday, came hours after Rivlin tasked Netanyahu with forming Israel’s next government, after efforts to foster talks on a unity coalition between the prime minister and Gantz seemed to have failed.

Odeh said that after his party’s Sunday decision to throw its support behind Gantz, the Blue and White leader sent MK Ofer Shelah to ask them to limit that endorsement.

“The thing is that Gantz and Blue and White wanted the task of forming a government to be given first to Netanyahu,” said Odeh, explaining his party’s actions to supporters.

Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah attends a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“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.

“Why? Because Netanyahu will not succeed in forming a government and when the task will be given to Blue and White afterward, the parties will not want to go to third early elections, the public will not want them to and will become angry… And at that moment, Gantz will be able to form the government. This is Blue and White’s logic in the last two days before the recommendation.”

Odeh said the request came as his party was in any case debating a demand from Balad not to have its three lawmakers included in the recommendation 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.

In a statement Sunday, Balad said 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.”

Mtanes Shihadeh of the Joint List and leader of the Balad party attends an election campaign event in Tel Aviv, August 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari / Flash90)

Odeh said he had favored enforcing unity in the alliance, but ultimately agreed to split the recommendation.

“Was it our duty to respond affirmatively to Blue and White’s demand? My opinion is not at all. What should concern us is our people’s interest and the interest of the issues we believe in,” he said.

“I was against responding affirmatively to (both) Blue and White’s tactic and Balad’s position,” Odeh said. “But I am against saying the responsibility lies with Balad, because Blue and White wanted that. Now the president has tasked Netanyahu, and Blue and White is satisfied.”

Balad representatives skipped the meeting between Rivlin and Odeh and the Joint List’s other representatives.

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.

“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.

President Reuven Rivlin (R) tasks Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a new government, during a press conference at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 25, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

“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.

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.

Adam Rasgon contributed to this report

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