Lapid: Joint List-backed minority coalition the only alternative to 4th election

Blue and White MK defends bid to woo Arab support, while admitting it’s ‘not the government we wanted’; says another national vote would be a ‘catastrophe’

Blue and White MK Yair Lapid speaks at the Maariv conference in Herzliya, on February 26, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Blue and White MK Yair Lapid speaks at the Maariv conference in Herzliya, on February 26, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Senior Blue and White MK Yair Lapid on Tuesday defended his party’s plans to form a minority government propped up on the outside by the Arab-majority Joint List, saying it was the only way to avert the “catastrophe” of a fourth round of consecutive elections.

Such a coalition, while “not the government we wanted,” is the only way to break the year-long political impasse, Lapid argued in a Facebook post.

Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud nor Blue and White mustered a majority of Knesset seats in last Monday’s election, and neither has a clear path to a majority coalition. The prime minister has the backing of 58 MKs and his Likud is the largest party in the 120-seat Knesset. But if Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu and the entire Joint List, which won 15 seats, were to recommend to President Reuven Rivlin that Blue and White leader Benny Gantz form the new coalition, he would have 62 backers and could get the nod.

Ahead of the round of recommendations to the president, Gantz has signaled his interest in forming a government with the hawkish Yisrael Beytenu and dovish Labor-Gesher-Meretz, with the Arab lawmakers voting the coalition into existence. Lapid’s statements on Tuesday confirmed reports on the Blue and White leader’s political gambit.

Head of the Joint List party Ayman Odeh speaks to the media outside his home in Haifa, March 3, 2020 (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

Such a bid remains a long-shot effort, as some of the more rightist members of Gantz’s party have openly rejected it and vowed to oppose it, and it remains unclear whether the Joint List and Blue and White could reach an agreement. One of the demands previously raised by the Arab alliance has been Gantz’s rejection of the Trump administration’s peace plan, which the former IDF chief of staff has endorsed.

“Contrary to the lies that Bibi [Netanyahu] is spreading, the Joint List would not be part of this government,” Lapid wrote Tuesday. “They will vote once from the outside [to back the government], and there it will end.”

Netanyahu “has cooperated with them [the Joint List] a thousand times before. I admit in advance, this is not the government we wanted. On the other hand, it’s far preferable to the current deadlock. Such a government could set a budget, the ministries would get back to work, the Knesset committees would open, we’ll help small businesses and prevent mass layoffs.”

Likud has attempted to portray the Joint List as out of bounds of Israeli politics, terming its members “terror supporters” and citing their opposition to Zionism and some extreme anti-Israel stances by members of Balad, one of the party’s constituent factions.

Balad leader Mtanes Shihadeh on Tuesday said he would recommend that the Joint List refrain from backing any candidate for premier in its consultations with the president. He told the Voice of Palestine radio that the Joint List was waiting for an offer from Gantz and that no negotiations were currently being held.

(R-L) Joint List MK Mtanes Shihadeh, President Reuven Rivlin and Joint List MKs Ayman Odeh, Mansour Abbas and Ahmad Tibi during a meeting at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on November 20, 2019. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Israel’s Arab lawmakers have long refused to join a government on ideological grounds, rooted in they support for the Palestinians. Jewish lawmakers have, mutually, seen the Arab parties as beyond the pale and generally refrained from including them in coalition calculi. Under its current leader, Ayman Odeh, however, segments of the Joint List have seemingly softened their opposition to such a partnership. After the previous elections in September, the party backed Gantz for the premiership, breaking with its longstanding refusal to endorse candidates for prime ministers.

The relationship between the Jewish and Arab lawmakers nonetheless remains highly strained, marred by mutual distrust and disagreements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, settlement-building, and Zionism. The tensions have been exacerbated by comments by hardline Joint List members that have appeared to support violence against Israelis, as well as increasingly strident rhetoric about the Joint List, and the Arab Israeli community in general, from Jewish politicians, including Netanyahu.

In his comments Tuesday, Lapid wrote that the only alternative to a coalition voted in by the Joint List would be another election — the fourth in just over a year — which would be a “catastrophe.”

“We would go to fourth elections, like Bibi wants. Yes, it’s as terrible as it sounds. More elections, more baseless hatred, more incitement, more violence, billions more shekels wasted,” he wrote.

Lapid also voiced support for a unity government with Likud, but said that option was impossible since Netanyahu would not agree to a rotation agreement of the premiership that would see Gantz serve as prime minister first.

“The problem is that there is no one to talk to. We checked a thousand times. Bibi rejected it entirely. The only thing that interests him is his indictments,” Lapid said, alluding to Netanyahu’s refusal to step down ahead of his upcoming corruption trial.

Unity talks to form a government made up of Likud and Blue and White failed following the September elections.

Liberman seemingly on board

Gantz and Yisrael Beytenu head Liberman said Monday afternoon they would work together to form a government, as they wrapped up a meeting amid rampant speculation that they were working to form a minority coalition reliant on the outside support of the Joint List.

“We’ve just concluded a good meeting, where we discussed questions of fundamental principle and determined that we will work together to assemble a government that will pull Israel out of the political deadlock and avert a fourth round of elections,” Gantz told reporters at the Kfar Maccabiah hotel in Ramat Gan, with Liberman standing alongside him. “We’ll continue to discuss the details, formulate our common objectives, and move forward.”

Liberman added that a fourth election would be “the worst of all possible scenarios” and vowed to prevent such a development.

The two declined to delve into specifics or reveal the type of government they seek to form, and Liberman said no decision on the matter would be made before Rivlin tasks a lawmaker next week with forming a coalition.

Blue and White chair Benny Gantz (C) meeting with leaders of the Joint List alliance, Ayman Odeh (L) and Ahmed Tibi, October 31, 2019. (Ofek Avshalom)

At the same time, two Blue and White MKs opposed to the formation of a government backed by the Joint List were told to toe the line or face expulsion from the party. Senior officials in Blue and White told Channel 12 that the two MKs from the centrist alliance’s right-wing Telem faction — MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel — were going to be kicked out of the party due to their opposition to a Joint List-backed government.

Even if the three-member ultra-nationalist Balad faction of the Joint List chose not to back Gantz, as happened in September, the Blue and White leader would still have 59 seats backing him — if Hauser and Hendel fall in line.

Gantz has spoken on the phone with the chairmen of three of the four factions in the Joint List — Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas. Balad head Shihadeh was not included on the call, according to a Blue and White statement, which said Gantz relayed his intention to form a coalition “that will serve all citizens of Israel, Jews and Arabs alike, and prevent a fourth election.”

Following his Monday meeting with Liberman, Gantz responded to the Channel 12 report suggesting Hendel and Hauser’s days were numbered. He said in a statement that while many opinions are allowed in the party, “The chairman is the one who decides, not ‘senior officials,'” referring to the unnamed sources behind the report.

Liberman had also vowed not to work with the Joint List, but appeared to soften his stance in the name of pulling Israel out of its year-long political logjam.

On Sunday, he laid out five preconditions for his joining a potential coalition, consisting primarily of a set of secularist demands that have no chance of being accepted by Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies but were quickly accepted by Gantz.

Blue and White party leaders, from the left, Gabi Ashkenazi, Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon greet their supporters at party headquarters after the first results of the elections in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

To combat the perception that the Joint List is beyond the pale, Blue and White is reportedly preparing to launch a media blitz to explain that in exchange for the support of the Joint List MKs, it will be agreeing to the same social-minded gestures to the Arab public that Likud has offered in the past.

It will then reportedly work to pass a budget before welcoming any other interested parties, including Likud, to join the coalition.

Under pressure from Likud, Blue and White repeatedly said during the election campaign it would not seek to form a government with the support of the Joint List.

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