Joint List may recommend Gantz for prime minister, says top Arab MK
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Joint List may recommend Gantz for prime minister, says top Arab MK

Ayman Odeh conditions support on ‘basic demands,’ aspires to be leader of the opposition, with access to security briefings

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Arab Joint List leader MK Ayman Odeh reacts as the first results in the Knesset elections are announced, September 17, 2019. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
Arab Joint List leader MK Ayman Odeh reacts as the first results in the Knesset elections are announced, September 17, 2019. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

The leader of the Joint List, a primarily Arab Israeli political alliance, said Wednesday he could give his backing to Blue and White leader MK Benny Gantz to form a coalition and become prime minister.

While MK Ayman Odeh told Army Radio he is considering recommending that President Reuven Rivlin give Gantz the first crack at forming a coalition, he emphasized that “we have basic demands and we will decide based on them.”

A party candidate had earlier said those demands would include renewing the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians and improving conditions for the Arab community in Israel.

The Central Elections Committee is to present the final results of the election to Rivlin on September 25. The president will then hold interviews with each of the party leaders to hear from them their recommendation for who should be tasked with forming a government.

Odeh didn’t make a recommendation to the president after the previous elections in April. That election failed to produce a majority coalition, leading to Tuesday’s do-over vote. Odeh’s support this time around could be enough to give Gantz the first crack at forming a coalition even though his Blue and White party appears tied with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, which leads a slightly larger bloc of supporters in the Knesset.

Odeh, whose party increased from 10 seats in April (when it split and ran as 2 separate slates) to 13 seats to become the third-largest faction in the Knesset, based on early results, also told the radio station that he aspires to be opposition chairman, a role that would give him access to security briefings.

Blue and White party chairman MK Benny Gantz at the Blue and White headquarters on elections night in Tel Aviv, on September 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Speaking later to reporters outside his home in Haifa, Odeh confirmed that he had talked with Gantz the night before, saying of the Joint List, “We want to replace the Netanyahu government, but we are not in anyone’s pocket.”

He is scheduled to meet with Gantz later in the day.

Odeh made it clear that his party would not join any coalition and that he looked forward to being the leader of the opposition, which would happen if a unity government is formed.

“It is an interesting position, unsurpassed for the Arab population — it has a lot of influence,” he said.

At an election party on Tuesday night in Nazareth, Joint List candidate Mansour Abbas said that in order for the party to consider recommending Gantz, it would need clear pledges from him to renew the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, fight crime in Arab communities, provide more funding to Arab municipalities and increase the number of building permits granted in Arab towns.

Joint List party leader Ayman Odeh filming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a discussion on the cameras bill at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on September 11, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In addition to wanting to end Netanyahu’s term in office, Odeh has indicated his backing of Gantz would be, in part, payback to Netanyahu for his election campaign, which trumpeted alleged voter fraud among the Arab minority and used the specter of Arab ministers in a left-wing government as a spur to his right-wing supporters.

In a tweet Wednesday, Odeh wrote “Listen, Abu Yair [Arabic for father of Yair], incitement has a price.” It was a reference to Netanyahu’s son, who has been widely accused of anti-Arab racism in his provocative campaigning on behalf of his father.

At the Nazareth party Odeh attributed his party’s increase in seats to pushback against the prime minister’s attacks on the Arab population.

Netanyahu has been accused of centering his campaigns on suppressing the Arab vote while “warning” supporters that they needed to counterbalance high turnout in Arab areas, drawing charges of racism.

Odeh said Netanyahu’s repeated attacks had boosted turnout and hurt him in the end.

“There’s a heavy price to pay for incitement,” he told Channel 13 news.

Aaed Kayel, the Joint List’s campaign manager, said that he could not provide precise data on turnout in Arab communities, but said he believed it topped 60 percent.

In the last elections, fewer than half of Arab voters cast ballots, according to a report by the Israel Democracy Institute, which put Arab turnout in that vote at 49.2%. In contrast, some 63.5% of Arab Israelis cast ballots in the March 2015 ballot, the report said.

Tuesday’s results were almost a complete reversal from fears of low voter turnout in Arab-majority cities and a rise of the extreme right.

Joint List MK Ahmed Tibi, left, and party leader MK Ayman Odeh react as the first results in Knesset elections are announced, September 17, 2019. (Basel Awidat/FLASH90)

“The era of Benjamin Netanyahu has come to a close,” Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi said from the stage in Nazareth, emphasizing that “the end of Netanyahu means ‘The Deal of the Century’ has fallen.”

“The Deal of the Century” is derogatory term used to refer to the Trump administration’s peace plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Before the election, Odeh had said he would sit in a coalition with a Gantz-led coalition under certain improbable conditions, but the offer was rebuffed by senior Blue and White lawmakers.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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