Odeh calls on Gantz to ‘show courage’ and invite Arab parties to join government
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Odeh calls on Gantz to ‘show courage’ and invite Arab parties to join government

Joint List leader acknowledges minority coalition would likely not last long, but says it would be ‘worth it’ just to oust Netanyahu as PM

Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, speaks during a press conference in Nazareth, July 27, 2019. (Flash90)
Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, speaks during a press conference in Nazareth, July 27, 2019. (Flash90)

The top Arab Knesset member on Thursday called on Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to form a minority government that includes the Arab-majority parties, saying that even if it would quickly fall, such a “courageous” move would be worth it for the single purpose of ousting Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister.

Immediately after receiving the mandate to form a government from President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday evening, Gantz began speaking with party leaders and inviting them to meet to negotiate their potential entry into the Blue and White-led coalition he hopes to establish, while also setting up meetings between his party’s negotiating team and other parties’ counterparts.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh said he had agreed to meet with the Blue and White leader and that “all options are on the table if we see a real alternative for peace and equality,” despite most of his faction previously ruling out his idea of possibly joining a Gantz coalition.

In a Channel 12 interview Thursday, Odeh urged Gantz “to act with courage” and invite the Joint List alliance of four Arab-majority parties to join the coalition negotiations.

Speaking to Army Radio earlier in the day, Odeh said Blue and White had not yet formally offered them to join a minority government, but cited Blue and White MK Ofer Shelah as supporting that option and said he views such a scenario as immensely important for Arab Israelis, one that would pay a critical role in “legitimizing” the community in Israeli public discourse.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz speaks after being tasked with forming a new government, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on October 23, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/AFP)

He said that in talks last month, before most of the Joint List recommended Gantz as prime minister, the parties had already made headway in agreeing on some issues important to the Arab community, “and now we want the debt to be paid.”

Odeh mentioned as an example the cancellation of a law that gives significant penalties to individuals who carry out illegal construction. 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.

Odeh refused to detail other examples of issues on which agreements were reached with Blue and White but said the talks had been “very serious.” He said the difference was that now, the negotiations need to be public and not covert.

Yisrael Beytenu chairman MK Avigdor Liberman speaks at a faction meeting at Neve Ilan west of Jerusalem, September 22, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

He acknowledged that sitting in — or supporting from outside — a coalition that includes Avigdor Liberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party was not a realistic scenario, but said that if Liberman remains “neutral” and abstains on votes, such a minority government could function, at least temporarily.

He added that even if such a government falls quickly, it would be “worth everything” to oust Netanyahu as premier. Netanyahu is still prime minister by default as long as no new coalition is formed.

“It would be better for Gantz to go to the next elections as prime minister, not with Netanyahu as prime minister,” he said.

When the interviewer said collaborating with the Joint List would cost Blue and White votes in the elections, Odeh said “that is the most important issue. For 20 years the left has ostracized the Arabs, and that has only served the right. There is a community that is 20 percent of the population, all of whom are against the right. Why not use that?”

Odeh said that he would hold negotiations with Gantz as the representative of the entire Joint List, including the three MKs for the nationalist Balad faction, despite Balad repeatedly saying, including on Wednesday, that there was no chance it would join a Gantz-led government or even meet for talks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks after being tasked by President Reuven Rivlin (not pictured) with forming a new government, during a press conference in Jerusalem, September 25, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

“There is an internal disagreement, but the majority’s decision will bind everyone,” Odeh said.

Netanyahu was initially tasked by Rivlin with trying to form a government based on the strength of his pact with right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties to negotiate as a bloc of 55 MKs of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers after September’s inconclusive elections (Likud: 32; Shas: 9; United Torah Judaism: 7 and Yamina: 7).

Gantz heads a bloc of 54 MKs from the center, left and Arab parties (Blue and White: 33; Labor-Gesher: 6; Democratic Camp: 5; and 10 out of 13 MKs from the Joint List).

If Gantz fails to cobble together a coalition during his 28-day window, which ends November 20, a majority of lawmakers in the Knesset could try to endorse any parliament member — including Netanyahu and Gantz — as prime minister. A leader has never before been elected during that time period in Israel. If that fails, the country would be forced into the unprecedented scenario of a third election in under a year.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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