Israel Election Results: Arab Alliance Expected to Recommend Gantz for Prime Minister, Party Sources Say

Rare move, awaiting formal decision, comes day before the Joint List, which won 13 seats, sends representatives for consultations with President Rivlin

Members of the Joint List meet in Kafr Qasem on September 21, 2019.
Nir Keidar

The Joint List, an alliance of four Israeli Arab parties, is expected to recommend Benny Gantz for prime minister, party sources said Saturday following a meeting in the central city of Kafr Qasem.

However, Ahmad Tibi, who leads one of the parties in the alliance, said the meeting ended with no decision. The leaders of the four parties in the alliance will meet Sunday to make a final decision ahead of a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin for consultations on coalition talks.

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That meeting is a part of a round of consultations with all party leaders following Israel's Tuesday election, to see which candidate receives the most support from elected lawmakers.

Joint List lawmaker Aida Touma-Sliman said the alliance had worked hard to ensure that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not win reelection, but that this does not mean it will automatically support Gantz. “The main takeaway from this election is that can’t be wiped off the political map,” said Touma-Sliman. “We won’t be part of the governing coalition, bu we will decide” who forms it.

A Kahol Lavan statement said the party had not made any promises to the Joint List in exchange for its possible recommendation. "The Joint List's decision on whether or not to recommend Benny Gantz to head the government depends on their desire to ensure a better future for israeli residents from all communities," the statement read.

"We want to show Kahol Lavan that we won't come crawling," a party official said, giving one explanation to the delay in the official decision. "They have to understand that this recommendation comes with a price, and that's why we've decided to hold it" until Sunday.

Some Joint List lawmakers told Haaretz negotiations with Kahol Lavan officials are ongoing, and the party's decision will be made according to their outcome.

They said their demands in talks with Gantz's party concern issues such as fighting violence in the Arab community, legalizing unrecognized Bedouin villages, rebuking or amending the so-called Nation-State Law, and renewing talks with the Palestinian Authority on a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Joint List would also ask to freeze house demolitions in Arab communities and annul the "Kaminitz Law," which is intended to crack down on illegal construction, but critics say unfairly targets Israeli Arabs.

"We have to come to our voters with something," one of the sources said. "Kahol Lavan also has to deal with those sorts of questions, and we'll decide based on what we hear from them."

Party officials would not say what their course of action would be should Kahol Lavan reject some or all of their demands.

In a rare statement released in late August, the party, which won 13 out of 120 Knesset seats this week, making it the third largest party in parliament, said it did not outright reject joining the next government and outlined the party's demands in coalition talks, marking a possible shift for Arab parties, which traditionally decline to join any Israeli government.

Israel's Arab parties have not officially recommended a prime minister since the 1992 election, when they backed Labor's Yitzhak Rabin, during whose tenure the Oslo Accords were signed. 

On Friday, a top presidential aide said Rivlin, who should decide in the coming days who to task with forming the next government, will work to establish a "stable government as quickly as possible," adding the nomination should be given to "the candidate with the highest chances."

Support from the Joint List's 13 lawmakers could potentially sway Rivlin's decision. Party officials said even though Kahol Lavan needs them in order to secure a majority of lawmakers recommending Gantz, it is clear to them that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rival is seeking to establish a national unity government that would not include the Joint List.

Last month, Kahol Lavan ruled out the possibility of adding the Joint List to any future government the party may be a member of. Moshe Ya'alon, a former defense minister and number 3 on Kahol Lavan's slate, told Army Radio: "I don't object to having an Arab minister, but he would have to accept that the State of Israel is a Jewish and democratic state." Gantz later reiterated this condition. 

Apart from Kahol Lavan's 33 lawmakers, Labor-Gesher's six elected representatives and the Democratic Union's five said they would recommend Gantz to Rivlin. Together with the Joint List, he would have 57 lawmakers recommending him, whereas Netanyahu has so far secured only 55, from his own Likud party, two ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism and right-wing alliance Yamina.

Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman, whose party won eight Knesset seats, has yet to decide which candidate for prime minister he would support, if at all. Any decision by him to support either Gantz or Netanyahu could tilt the scales in Rivlin's meetings with party leaders.

Prior to Saturday's party meeting, officials from three of the four parties that make up the Joint List – Hadash, Ta'al and United Arab List – supported the proposal to recommend Gantz, given that his Kahol Lavan party commits to promoting issues relevant to the Arab community. Balad officials, however, opposed the motion and called to support no candidate at all because of "Gantz's right-wing views, his desire to form a unity government with Likud and his refusal to commit to scrapping the Nation-state Law and the Kaminitz Law."   

The decision to recommend Gantz would apply to all 13 Joint List lawmakers, regardless of their party affiliation, party sources stressed Saturday.