Arab Party Leader Hints He Won’t Back Gantz for Prime Minister After Israeli Election

Leader of the Joint List Ayman Odeh calls the Kahol Lavan leader ‘a pale imitation of Netanyahu’

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Joint List head Ayman Odeh.
Joint List head Ayman Odeh.Credit: AFP

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh has indicated that his slate will not recommend Benny Gantz to form a government after next week’s election, which the largely Arab list did after September’s election. Without Joint List’s support, it will likely be much more difficult for Gantz, chairman of Kahol Lavan, to get President Reuven Rivlin’s nod to try to build a governing coalition and become prime minister.

Speaking at a campaign event in Haifa Wednesday, Odeh said of Gantz, “He is a pale imitation of Netanyahu and people prefer the original.” He said his goal was for the Joint List to obtain 16 seats in the next Knesset and thereby prevent Netanyahu from forming a government.

In other election news, Yair Lapid, No. 2 on the Kahol Lavan slate, told the publication Matzav Haruach that he would not agree to sit in a government with Rafi Peretz, chairman of Habayit Hayehudi “just as we won’t form a government with Heba Yazbak,” a reference to a Knesset member from the Joint List.

In the interview, which appeared on Thursday, Lapid said, “Anyone who forges a political alliance with [anti-Arab Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar] Ben-Gvir is removing himself from the range of Israeli legitimacy,” and that it would also “be very difficult” with the chairman of the National Union, Bezalel Smotrich, one of the parties on the far-right Yamina slate, along with Habayit Hayehudi and Hayamin Hehadash.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday Naftali Bennett, the defense minister and head of Hayamin Hehadash, told Channel 13 that the slate will remain united after the election and that his colleagues would not join a government with Kahol Lavan, explaining that “Kahol Lavan’s positions are Yesh Atid in disguise.”

In Haifa, Odeh was asked about the backing most of his slate gave Gantz in consultations with Rivlin after the September election. “It was very difficult,” he replied. In reference to the Purim story, he quipped: “It wasn’t for the love of Mordechai but hatred of Haman,” meaning not out of enthusiasm for Gantz but out of antipathy for Gantz’s opponent, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Joint List’s recommendation of Gantz, Odeh recounted, had its origins at an opposition demonstration last May. At first, Gantz had asked Odeh to speak at the May event, but when he accepted the invitation, he was told that the speakers’ list was already finalized. “The pressure [on Gantz] had begun and the speech was canceled,” Odeh said. “And then, three hours before [the event], he told me: ‘If you want, be my guest.’ I spoke with [my] party and we agreed that it was right [to support Gantz in his bid to form a coalition].”

In the Matsav Haruach interview, Lapid said of Peretz, the education minister: “The education minister of the State of Israel cannot be someone who forges political alliances with supporters of murderers,” a reference to Ben-Gvir, who had a picture hanging in his home of Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Palestinians in Hebron.

“Peretz has removed himself from the camp of Israelihood as I understand it, and it’s my job to warn about it,” said Lapid, who added that he had no problem joining forces with Bennett and Ayelet Shaked of Hayamin Hehadash. In response, Peretz wrote: “In the coming election, the citizens of Israel will have to decide: Love of the Jewish people or baseless hatred.”

In the first round of elections last April, Peretz and Smotrich’s faction ran with Otzma Yehudit, but Ben-Gvir didn’t make it into Knesset. When the current election campaign began, Peretz signed onto a political alliance with Ben-Gvir, but withdrew from it and allied with Hayemin Hehadash and the National Union, as he had done in September’s second round.

On Thursday, Bennett did not exclude the possibility of supporting a bill that would permit Netanyahu to avoid standing trial on the three indictments pending against him. Speaking to Army Radio, Bennett he was “very much in favor” of a law that would grant immunity from prosecution to prime ministers while they are in office. “When a specific bill is introduced in one connection or another, I will examine what is presented.”

Netanyahu is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. His trial is due to begin on March 17, following the election.

“What we have seen over the past 20 years is that all of the prime ministers have been under a criminal cloud while in office that made it difficult for them to function,” Bennett said, adding: “Nothing would happen if such matters were deferred until the end of the [prime minister’s] term.”

The defense minister said he would make an exception for “particularly serious crimes” such as murder, robbery or rape, charges that he noted are more serious than those pending against Netanyahu.

In more election news, Amir Peretz, head of the Labor-Gesher-Meretz ticket, said on Thursday that if he is in the next government, he would have social work Professor Alean al-Krenawi appointed as Israel’s first Bedouin cabinet member.

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