The Joint List alliance of Arab-majority parties on Monday told President Reuven Rivlin that its recommendation of Benny Gantz as the next prime minister only came from three of its four factions and ten of its 13 lawmakers.
The president said he accepted the Joint List’s clarification of its endorsement, which seemingly leaves Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a razor-thin lead over Gantz in the race to be the first to have a shot at cobbling together a coalition in the wake of last Tuesday’s election.
In a dramatic departure from longstanding policy, the Joint List on Sunday backed Gantz for prime minister in a meeting with Rivlin, saying it was a necessary move to oust Netanyahu, but ruled out joining a coalition. 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.
But unlike the Hadash, Ta’al and Ra’am parties, the Palestinian nationalist Balad party, the fourth in the Joint List alliance, from the start said it opposed recommending Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff who commanded the military during the Gaza war of 2014. Balad representatives did not attend the meeting with Rivlin.
“I would like to announce that the three Balad Knesset members have asked me as the faction chairman to declare that the Joint List’s recommendation of MK Benny Gantz does not include them, and therefore the recommendation is in the name of ten MKs and not 13,” MK Ahmad Tibi of Ta’al wrote in a letter, which was apparently sent to Rivlin on Sunday and published Monday morning.
Balad chairman Mtanes Shihadeh told the Kan public broadcaster Monday that the party has been saying for months that it won’t back Gantz or Blue and White.
“We are four partner parties, not a single party,” he said of the Joint List. “Nobody can force the other how to behave or what to say, especially on matters of ideology and principle. This is something that we fundamentally cannot live with. Of course if Gantz brings forward a government and the Joint List decides to support it, Balad won’t support.”
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 Likud’s, and his bloody and aggressive military history.”
In splitting its recommendation, the Joint List was on course to reduce Gantz’s bloc of supporters to 54 seats, one fewer than Netanyahu’s. That would hurt Gantz’s chances of getting the first shot at cobbling together a coalition, despite the fact that his Blue and White emerged as the largest party after the election, at 33 seats — two more than Netanyahu’s Likud.
According to unconfirmed reports, neither Gantz nor Netanyahu is enamored by the prospect of being given the first shot at building a coalition, with both preferring to take up the mantle 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.
Apart from Balad, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party has also refused to recommend either candidate, since neither has pledged to strive for a secular unity government with the other.
Arab turnout in last Tuesday’s election soared by 20 percent, from just below 50% to some 60%, after Netanyahu’s Likud campaign targeted Arab voters with inflammatory rhetoric, alleging fraud in Arab polling stations and warning Gantz would form a coalition with the backing of the Arab parties.
“We and our public have proved that there is a price for incitement,” said Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh on Sunday, after the meeting with Rivlin. “We want to put an end to the Netanyahu era. Our public has done half the journey, we are completing it. This was perhaps the hardest decision in my life, but we are fulfilling the will of our public.”
“We have seen the hardest election since 1948 in terms of the incitement against Israel’s Arab citizens,” Odeh told Rivlin upon issuing the recommendation. “We have been turned into a group that is not legitimate in Israeli politics. If we are being pushed out, we will take our rightful place. For us, the most important thing is removing Benjamin Netanyahu from power.”
“So we will recommend Benny Gantz to form the next government,” added Odeh.
The president has the power to appoint one of the elected 120 MKs as the next potential prime minister of Israel. The designated lawmaker must then attempt to cobble together a coalition that wins the support of a majority of Knesset members.
Once a candidate is chosen by the president, that individual has 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.
Rivlin has promised to do “everything in his power” to prevent the country from heading to an unprecedented third election within a year.
Agencies contributed to this report.