Israeli Arab parties back Gantz for PM in break with precedent

Updated September 23, 2019

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In this September 19 file photo, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, left, Esther Hayut, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a memorial service for former President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem. — AP
In this September 19 file photo, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, left, Esther Hayut, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a memorial service for former President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem. — AP

JERUSALEM: Israeli Arab political parties broke with longstanding precedent on Sunday and endorsed ex-military chief Benny Gantz for prime minister following last week’s elections, seeking to keep the president from asking incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu to form the next government.

The dramatic move came after the mainly Arab Joint List alliance won 13 seats in Tuesday’s polls, making them the third-largest force in the 120-seat parliament.

In announcing the decision, Joint List leader Ayman Odeh said the alliance’s decision was not an endorsement of Gantz’s policies but a move to oust Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

Netanyahu has repeatedly been accused of political rhetoric and actions amounting to racism toward Israel’s Arab population.

“We have become illegitimate in Israeli politics in the Netanyahu era,” Odeh told Israeli President Reuven Rivlin when informing him of the endorsement.

“We are this time recommending Benny Gantz to form the next government.” Prominent Arab parliament member Ahmad Tibi said “history is done: We’ll do what is needed to bring down Netanyahu.” It was the first time that majority Arab parties had endorsed a candidate for prime minister since 1992, when they backed Yitzhak Rabin, who went on to sign the Oslo accords with the Palestinians.

But it was not at all certain that the Arab parties would succeed in their mission to end Netanyahu’s long dominance of Israeli politics.Tuesday’s elections ended in yet another deadlock, the second after April polls also finished inconclusively.

Blue and White won the most seats, with 33 out of parliament’s 120, while Likud finished second with 31. Neither has an obvious path to a majority coalition.

Gantz is expected to have the endorsement of 57 seats during Rivlin’s consultations, which continue on Monday. Netanyahu is expected to receive 55.

Those totals do not include ex-defence minister Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, which won eight seats.

Lieberman, who could potentially play a kingmaker role, said he will not endorse either Netanyahu or Gantz for now.

Lieberman has insisted on a unity government between his party, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White.

He said he could not for now back Netanyahu because the premier is willing to form a coalition with Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, which he accuses of seeking to impose religious law on the secular population.

Lieberman also said he could not back Gantz for now because he may reach a deal with either the ultra-Orthodox or Israel’s Arab parties, which he called “enemies.” Faced with disappointing results, Netanyahu last week acknowledged he was unable to form the right-wing coalition that he had hoped for and called on Gantz to join him in a unity government.

But Gantz, who has also called for a unity government, made his position clear: He must be prime minister under any such arrangement, since his party has the most seats.

Rivlin would “make every effort to prevent a third set of elections,” Harel Tubi, director general of the president’s office, told Israel’s army radio on Sunday.

Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2019