Ten of Israel’s newly elected Arab members of parliament have recommended that Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White party, be allowed the first chance to form a government after last week’s inconclusive polls.
Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, is canvassing opinions from all the parliamentarians before assigning either Mr Gantz, or the embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the task of corralling 61 members of the 120-member Knesset into a coalition. Neither currently has a majority, signalling tortuous negotiations ahead.
Tuesday’s polls gave the Joint List of Arab Parties — which includes Islamists, Communists and Palestinian Nationalists — 13 seats after Arab turnout rose in response to Mr Netanyahu’s campaign.
All 13 have said they will not sit in a coalition with Mr Gantz, who has refused to back a return to peace negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
Instead, the Joint List have presented their decision as a tactic to ensure that Mr Netanyahu, who has regularly assailed the Arab-Israeli parties, does not stand a chance of securing a record fifth premiership.
Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party trails behind Mr Gantz’s Blue and White by two seats, but the rightwing bloc of parties has secured 55 mandates out of the 61 required to create a government.
“The Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel have chosen to reject Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his politics of fear and hate, the inequality and division he advanced for the past decade,” the chairman of the Joint List wrote in an editorial in the New York Times. “We have decided to demonstrate that Arab Palestinian citizens can no longer be rejected or ignored.”
Three of the members of the Joint List declined to give either Mr Gantz or Mr Netanyahu their backing, including the influential Balad party lawmaker Ahmed Tibi, often cast as a foil to Mr Netanyahu’s Likud in election slogans like “Bibi or Tibi,” referring to the four-time premier’s nickname.
Arab parties have often stayed on the sideline of Israeli politics, even as the Arab population of Israel has grown to about a fifth.
Arabs left within the borders of Israel established by the war in 1948 were eventually granted citizenship, but lived under martial law until about 1966.
Palestinians, including East Jerusalem residents, who came under Israeli-controlled territory in the 1967 war, do not have the right to vote in Israeli elections. In elections in 1992, the Arab parties threw their unofficial support behind then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, as he pursued negotiations with the PLO, eventually leading to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords.
Mr Netanyahu assailed their tentative and symbolic backing of Mr Gantz as a threat to Zionism. “The Arab parties that oppose Israel as a Jewish & democratic state and glorify terrorists recommended Gantz for prime minister,” he said in a statement. “The Likud will make every effort to establish a stable and strong government committed to maintaining Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. We can’t have a government that relies on Arab parties that oppose the State of Israel.”
The person picked by Mr Rivlin, who has indicated he prefers a unity government between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz instead of a third round of elections, will then have at least a month to try to secure support for a government. After speaking to all the parliamentary groups, Mr Rivlin summoned Mr Gantz and Mr Netanyahu to a meeting on Monday evening.
Mr Netanyahu’s failure to do so in April polls led to Tuesday’s elections, the first time Israel has held national elections twice in a year.