Israel Election Results: Arab Alliance Endorses Gantz for PM, Lieberman Won't Back Anyone

Rare move by Joint List in bid to 'end the Netanyahu era' could give Kahol Lavan leader first chance at forming coalition ■ Lieberman: 'Joint List members are enemies'

Joint List leaders enter the President's Residence, Jerusalem, September 22, 2019.
Emil Salman

>> UPDATE: Three Arab lawmakers clarify they won’t endorse Gantz 

The Joint List decided Sunday to endorse Benny Gantz for Israel's next prime minister, drawing condemnation from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, as President Reuven Rivlin began two days of consultations with party leaders to decide which candidate he will choose to task with forming a governing coalition. (Who is Benny Gantz? Meet the man who might be Israel's next prime minister)

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Joint List's backing, together with Kahol Lavan's 33 lawmakers, Labor-Gesher's six elected representatives and the Democratic Union's five, Gantz would have 57 recommendations, overtaking Netanyahu.

Before meeting Rivlin, Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh said they decided to back Gantz because "we want to put an end to the Netanyahu era."

Odeh also wrote in a New York Times opinion piece explaining the decision: "I have argued earlier that if the center-left parties of Israel believe that Arab Palestinian citizens have a place in this country, they must accept that we have a place in its politics [. . .] We have decided to demonstrate that Arab Palestinian citizens can no longer be rejected or ignored. Our decision to recommend Mr. Gantz as the next prime minister without joining his expected national unity coalition government is a clear message that the only future for this country is a shared future, and there is no shared future without the full and equal participation of Arab Palestinian citizens."

>> Read more: How Avigdor Lieberman has made himself King Bibi's regicide ■ Israeli Arab party must recommend Gantz as prime minister, or Netanyahu will be back | Analysis ■ The government that Israel must have | Ehud Barak

Netanyahu said that “exactly what we’ve been warning of” has happened. “Now, there are two options: Either a minority government backed by those who reject Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and praise terrorists … would be formed, or a broad national unity government,” he said, vowing to “work as much as I can to form a broad national unity government. There’s no other solution.”

Balad, one of the four parties that make up the alliance, does not support the decision and did not send representatives to the president's office. But the Joint List said that its decision on who to recommend for prime minister would apply to all of its 13 elected lawmakers. 

President Reuven Rivlin shaking hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz at a memorial service for Shimon Peres, September 19, 2019.
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

"Balad has worked as part of the Joint List to take down Benjamin Netanyahu, and will clearly keep on doing so, but at the same time does not see Gantz as an alternative, when he and his party support the annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, threaten with a war in Gaza and unwilling to annul the racist Nation-State Law."

As meetings began, Yisrael Beiteinu's Avigdor Lieberman announced he wouldn't endorse either Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz

"The commitments we've made to our voters are rock solid, and we won’t budge at all," he said. "As soon as Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud decided to form a bloc with ultra-Orthodox parties and religious fanatics, we can’t be part of that bloc."

On Gantz, Lieberman argued, "He’s keeping the option of forming a government with the ultra-Orthodox and the Joint List. The ultra-Orthodox parties are not enemies, but political rivals. Joint List members are certainly enemies, wherever they may be."

On Sunday, the leaders of Labor-Gesher said they would recommend Gantz, while the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, said they would endorse Netanyahu. 

Avigdor Lieberman in Tel Aviv, August 6, 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

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.

Political sources estimate that if the former Israeli army chief of staff manages to garner the most recommendations, Rivlin will task him with the mission of forming a coalition first. 

Each outfit represented in the Knesset will be able to recommend its pick at a potential prime minister in meetings that will be broadcast live, according to new regulations that came into force during Israel's previous election in April. Rivlin will announce his choice on Wednesday, after the Central Elections Committee confirms the final results.

Because both Gantz and Netanyahu's parties fall short of the 61 seats needed for a majority, the man who could have tipped the scales was Lieberman, with his crucial eight seats.

The presidential nod should be given to "the candidate with the highest chances" of forming a "stable government as quickly as possible," top aide Harel Tobi said on Friday.

File photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Avichai Mandelblit during cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, September 21, 2014.
Menahem Kahana/Reuters

Kahol Lavan sources: Party prefers not to get first chance at forming coalition

Sources in Kahol Lavan said that the party had decided it would prefer for Netanyahu to get the first chance at forming a coalition, under the assumption that he will fail to do so. “We came to the conclusion that whoever gets the chance to form a government first will fail, which is why we’d prefer to get the assignment after the various parties will be prepared to be flexible, not at the stage when they are entrenched in their positions,” a source said.

Kahol Lavan has no control over the order in which the president will assign the task of forming a government. But preferring not to go first means that the party would be prepared to give up the post of chairman of the arranging committee, which controls the Knesset mechanisms until the coalition is formed and the regular Knesset committees are filled. By law, this job goes to the party of the first lawmaker tasked with forming a government.

The arranging committee appoints interim members to the Knesset Finance Committee and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, advances legislation during the transition period until the new government is formed, and can decide on questions of granting parliamentary immunity to MKs that request it.

Sources in the President’s Residence told Haaretz that Rivlin will not decide who goes first on the basis of requests by the various candidates.

Netanyahu's legal woes could inform president's decision

Sources involved in the discussions at the President's Residence told Haaretz that so far, no legal opinion has been presented to prevent Rivlin from giving the task to Netanyahu, even in case the attorney general files an indictment against the premier in the coming weeks. 

Rivlin will be meeting Kahol Lavan, Likud, the Joint List, Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu on Sunday, so his decision on whom to task with forming a government will likely become clear even before he finishes consulting with the other parties on Monday.

Rivlin may well convene a three-way meeting with Gantz and Netanyahu to promote the formation of a unity government if negotiations on building a governing coalition seem to be stuck. So far he hasn’t called for such a meeting.

In recent weeks, several people who met with Rivlin have raised the possibility of a deal in which charges against Netanyahu would be dropped in exchange for his departure from political life. But Rivlin has declined to discuss the matter.

These interlocutors, who included lawyers and journalists, raised the question on their own initiative. None of them appear to have been acting openly on Netanyahu’s behalf, though some of them are acquainted with him.

Nevertheless, journalist and political commentator Raviv Drucker reported on Channel 13 television over the weekend that a Netanyahu envoy did come to Rivlin to ask the same question. Drucker reported that this envoy isn’t someone directly affiliated with the prime minister, but rather someone “who could deny any connection with him.”