The Joint List alliance of Arab-majority parties will reportedly on Sunday present a list of demands to the Blue and White party as conditions for recommending Benny Gantz as the next prime minister, although, despite talks, the centrist party has not yet made any commitments in return.
Blue and White has established a back channel to communicate with the Joint List — an alliance of four parties — which is said to be leaning toward endorsing the former IDF chief of staff. However, three of its 13 newly elected Knesset members, from the Balad party, are opposed to the move.
The primarily Arab slate will have to make a decision by 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, when its representatives are scheduled to meet with President Reuven Rivlin and tell him whether they recommend Gantz — the chief rival of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — as leader of the country.
Senior party members were quoted Sunday by Hebrew-language media as saying they would present their demands later in the day to Blue and White. These include freezing home demolitions in unrecognized Arab villages, forming a team to examine the issue of those villages, passing a government decision on battling violence within the Arab sector, canceling the controversial nation-state law — which enshrines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people — and initiating a peace process with the Palestinian Authority.
These demands come in addition to revising a law that gives significant penalties to individuals who carry out illegal construction, a demand reported Saturday evening by Channel 13. The so-called Kamenitz Law, passed by the Knesset in 2017, strengthened the state’s ability to tackle illegal construction, creating additional tools for enforcement of the Building and Planning Code. This package of improvements, officially titled Amendment 116, included stiffer sanctions against building infractions and made it easier for inspectors to issue stop-work and demolition orders.
Revising the law could benefit Arab Israeli towns where illegal construction is rife. Officials in those municipalities assert that the reason for much of the illegal construction is the government’s refusal to grant sufficient building permits.
The Joint List sources did not say what they would do if Gantz refuses the demands, but they said there was a real dialogue with Blue and White.
On Saturday, the Joint List met in an attempt to decide whether to back Gantz as prime minister.
As reports swirled that the Joint List was gearing up to recommend Gantz, Balad chairman Jamal Zahalka, a former legislator, tweeted Saturday night that his faction could not support such a move because Gantz is a right-winger, wants to build a coalition with Likud, and has not committed to canceling the controversial nation state Law or the Kamenitz Law.
Though he serves as Balad’s chairman, Zahalka is not himself an MK.
If they do decide to back Gantz, it will be the first time Arab parties separetly 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.
MK Ahmad Tibi, chairman of the Ta’al party, another faction in the Joint List, was quoted by several outlets as being optimistic there could be a real change in the next Knesset term regarding the Arab sector. On Sunday morning, Tibi even told the Kan public broadcaster: “Eventually we will come to the president and make a historic decision that will send Netanyahu home.”
Still, Blue and White denied it had promised anything in return for the Joint List’s support.
“The Joint List’s decision to recommend or not recommend Benny Gantz as prime minister depends on their will to guarantee a better future for Israeli citizens from all sectors. Blue and White hasn’t promised anything in return for a recommendation to the president,” the centrist party said.
MK Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamist Ra’am party, admitted in an interview Sunday morning with Army Radio that Blue and White had indeed not made any commitment in exchange for the recommendation. He added that if a majority of the Joint List decides to support Gantz, Balad would be forced to also do so.
The Joint List’s demands are likely to anger the relatively hawkish Telem faction within Blue and White, headed by Moshe Ya’alon, and Telem’s members are expected to object to cooperating with the Arab alliance if its demands relate only to the Arab sector.
Speaking to supporters Saturday night in the northern town of Shfaram, incoming Balad MK Sami Abu Shehada — number 13 on the Joint List — said that Gantz had asked the Arab slate to keep its talks with Blue and White quiet so as not to rile Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman.
Blue and White is also seeking recommendations from Yisrael Beytenu’s eight lawmakers, who will be meeting with Rivlin at 8 p.m. Liberman has ruled out sitting in a coalition with the Joint List and has regularly used the Arab lawmakers as his political punching bag, accusing them of being a “fifth column” seeking to destroy the state from within.
Tuesday’s election ended in an apparent deadlock, with Gantz’s Blue and White emerging as the larger party according to almost complete results, 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. If the Joint List recommends Gantz, the Blue and White leader would have the support of at least 57 members of Knesset. Yisrael Beytenu, with eight seats, holds the balance of power between the blocs and has yet to announce who, if anyone, it will recommend 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 task him with building a government.
Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.