Party's decision could affect Rivlin's choice of would-be PM

Joint List of Arab parties seen leaning toward recommending Gantz for PM

10 of 13 MKs said in favor after hours of talks; Arab parties have not endorsed a mainstream leader since Rabin in 1992; Odeh: ‘Without our backing, Netanyahu cannot be defeated’

Head of the Joint List party Ayman Odeh (second from right) seen with party members during a faction meeting in Kfar Qasim, on September 21, 2019. (Roy Alima/Flash90)
Head of the Joint List party Ayman Odeh (second from right) seen with party members during a faction meeting in Kfar Qasim, on September 21, 2019. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

The Joint List, a primarily Arab Israeli political alliance, met Saturday in an attempt to decide whether to back Blue and White leader MK Benny Gantz as prime minister, but failed to reach a decision.

Signs were, however, that it was leaning toward recommending Gantz, a decision that could be significant in determining whether President Reuven Rivlin charges Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or challenger Gantz with the task of seeking to build a majority government after Tuesday’s inconclusive elections. If the Joint List recommends Gantz, the Blue and White leader would have the support of at least 57 members of Knesset. At present, Likud’s Netanyahu has the backing of 55. Yisrael Beytenu, with eight seats, holds the balance of power between the blocs and has also yet to announce who, if anyone, it will recommend to Rivlin.

Channel 12 news reported Saturday night that 10 of the Joint List’s 13 newly elected Knesset members support endorsing Gantz, led by party chief Ayman Odeh.

“It’s a historic decision,” Odeh said in a video statement after several hours of talks with his Joint List colleagues. “We haven’t yet made a final decision. Without the weight of Arab voters, Netanyahu cannot be defeated. But at the same time, can we support Gantz with nothing in return?”

The party leaders are to meet again on Sunday to make a final decision.

(L to R) Joint List candidates Ofer Cassif, Heba Yazbak, Mtanes Shehadeh, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi, Aida Touma-Suleiman and Iman Khatib Yassin appear before supporters at the alliance’s campaign headquarters in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth on September 17, 2019, as the first exit polls are announced on television. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

“It was a serious and deep discussion, but no decision was made [on recommending Gantz],” Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi said. Two other members, Ofer Kasif and Aida Touma-Sliman, earlier denied Hebrew media reports that a decision had already been reached.

If they do decide to recommend Gantz, it will be the first time Arab parties have recommended a mainstream Zionist politician since 1992, when they supported Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin, who campaigned on peace with the Palestinians.

On Wednesday, Joint List leader Ayman Odeh told Army Radio he was considering recommending that Rivlin give Gantz the first crack at forming a coalition, but emphasized that “we have basic demands and we will decide based on them.” Joint List leaders are set to meet Rivlin on Monday; the president begins two days of consultations on Sunday evening.

MK Yousef Jabarin told Israel Radio on Saturday that the party’s demands include renewing the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, improving conditions for the Arab community in Israel and overturning the Jewish nation-state law.

He also noted parties had only backed Rabin after receiving concrete pledges. “So far we have not heard that from Gantz,” he said.

Odeh on Wednesday spoke with Gantz and made clear that his party would not join any coalition, and that he wanted to be the leader of the opposition. It was highly unlikely that Gantz would have invited the Joint List into a proposed coalition in any case.

Israel’s president has the power to charge one of the 120 MKs elected Tuesday with the task of trying to form a majority coalition and thus becoming prime minister.

Tuesday’s election ended in an apparent deadlock, with Gantz’s Blue and White emerging as the larger party, at 33 seats, and incumbent premier Netanyahu’s Likud winning 31. Netanyahu heads a right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc of 55 MKs. Gantz heads a bloc of 44 centrist and left-wing MKs. The Joint Arab list, with its 13 seats, has yet to decide what to say to Rivlin. Potential kingmaker Avigdor Liberman, whose Yisrael Beytenu has eight seats, also has yet to make clear who, if anybody, he will recommend as prime minister to Rivlin.

With Joint List support, Gantz would head both the biggest party and the biggest bloc in the new parliament, potentially giving Rivlin a clear basis on which to charge him with seeking to build 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 a chance at forming a coalition as head of a slightly larger bloc.

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

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speak on election night in Tel Aviv at separate party events, September 18, 2019. (Miram Alster, Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Once a candidate is chosen by the president, they have 28 days to present a coalition to the new Knesset and win a vote of confidence. The president is allowed to extend that period by up to 14 days.

Netanyahu on Wednesday gathered together the leaders of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties, and obtained their support for a so-called bloc that has vowed to conduct its coalition talks as a unified faction — in the hopes of swaying Rivlin to choose him for premier, or at least prevent Gantz from successfully forming a coalition if the Blue and White leader is selected first.

The president has promised to do “everything in my power” to prevent the country from heading to an unprecedented third consecutive within a year.

Central Elections Committee Chairman Hanan Melcer presents the official results of the April 9, 2019 Knesset elections to President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, April 17, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Rivlin’s office said Thursday the president would receive each party’s recommendation for premier, and would then meet with the candidates.

The process is expected to take two days, with Rivlin meeting the parties in descending order of their Knesset size. On Sunday evening, he is set to meet with representatives of Blue and White, Likud, Joint List, Shas and Yisrael Beytenu. On Monday morning, he is set to meet with representatives from United Torah Judaism, Yamina, Labor-Gesher and Democratic Union.

President’s Residence Director General Harel Tubi sent formal invitations on Thursday to all party leaders.

As was the case after April’s elections, “the meetings with the parties will be broadcast live on all platforms, to ensure transparency for Israeli citizens,” Rivlin’s office said.

Rivlin met earlier Thursday with Central Elections Committee chairman and Supreme Court justice Hanan Melcer.

Adam Rasgon contributed to this report

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