With Weeks to Go Before Israel's Election, Gantz Trying to Form Government Without Arab Parties

Likud believes tying the Kahol Lavan leader to the Joint List will thwart his efforts to win over two to three seats’ worth of right-wing voters

Benny Gantz in a Kahol Lavan campaign event in Rishon Letzion, Israel, February 4, 2020.
Tomer Appelbaum

Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party is trying to come up with strategies for how to form a government without the Arab parties’ Joint List.

For the past few days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been hammering home the message that Gantz can’t form a government without the Joint List’s support, and therefore wouldn’t be able to annex the Jordan Valley or launch a military operation in the Gaza Strip. His Likud party believes that associating Gantz with the Joint List will thwart his efforts to win over two to three seats’ worth of rightist voters.

Israel’s third election is a racist race to replace BibiHaaretz Weekly Podcast Ep. 61

“We’ll apply Israeli law here,” Netanyahu said during a tour of the valley this week. “Gantz won’t. He’s gotten a veto from [MK] Ahmad Tibi, who told him, ‘If you annex, you won’t be prime minister.’ And when Gantz talks about an operation in Gaza, what operation? Ahmad Tibi won’t let him. He’ll veto that, too.”

Kahol Lavan admitted on Wednesday that this is a weakness which makes it harder to woo rightist voters, though it isn’t deterring the party’s existing supporters. That’s why it has recently tried to dissociate itself from the Joint List.

“The Joint List can’t be part of the government I will form,” Gantz said Tuesday. “My disagreements with its leadership on national and security matters alone are deep, harsh and irreconcilable.”

One person close to Gantz said Kahol Lavan doesn’t even want the Joint List supporting his government from the outside.

But can Gantz form a government without the Arab ticket? Kahol Lavan insists there are ways to do so.

Leaders of the Joint List at the Knesset, Jerusalem, January 2020.
Ohad Zwigenberg

“We’ll form a minority government after getting support from a majority of the Zionists, which will deprive Netanyahu of any possibility of forming a coalition,” one party source said. As long as Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party sides with Gantz, giving his bloc more seats than Netanyahu’s, “we won’t need the Joint List,” this source added.

Another party source said that if Kahol Lavan ends up significantly bigger than Likud, the rightist bloc will break apart after the election and some rightist parties will join Gantz.

But Gantz himself has hinted that the Joint List might still support him. “Anyone who wants to support us will support us, anyone who wants to oppose us will oppose us,” he said during a tour of Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva. “That’s how democracy works.”

Soon afterward, this comment starred on Netanyahu’s Twitter account, accompanied by the message, “The lie has been exposed. Gantz admits that he’ll rely on the Joint List’s support to form a government.”

Though the Joint List is furious with Gantz, it still hasn’t decided what it will do if he does get the nod to form a government. Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh assailed Gantz’s recent statements in media interviews Tuesday, adding that his party will vote against any government that includes Yisrael Beiteinu. However, he hinted that the Joint List might support a Gantz-led minority government, which Yisrael Beiteinu could then join later.

Another Joint List source said it would be a mistake to cold-shoulder Gantz. “Arab voters will vote in large numbers only if they know there’s an alternative to Netanyahu,” he said. “The moment we say Netanyahu and Gantz are the same thing, there’s a danger that support for us in the election will shrink.”

Nevertheless, the party is worried by Kahol Lavan’s right-wing messages and isn’t convinced that they are merely an electoral tactic. Among other things, Gantz supported the Trump administration’s peace plan, including its proposal for annexing the Jordan Valley and the settlements.Moreover, as of Tuesday, Gantz had yet to criticize the plan’s proposal that some Israeli Arab towns be transferred to Palestinian control; he did so only after Netanyahu’s office said that no such transfer would happen. Kahol Lavan also recently blocked the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry committee on violence in the Arab community.

Tibi said the decision on whether to support a Gantz government would be made only after the election. Even though “we’re very unhappy, to say the least, by the way Kahol Lavan is outflanking Likud to the right,” he said, the four parties comprising the Joint List haven’t yet discussed whether or not to support Gantz, and won’t do so until after the election.