Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision on Monday night to throw in the towel on his stalled bid for a fifth premiership has opened up a possible route to power for his rival, the centre-right army-chief-turned-politician Benny Gantz.
Israel has been in political limbo since an April election that saw both Mr Netanyahu’s Likud and rival parties fail to secure enough seats to form a coalition government.
President Reuven Rivlin will this week ask Mr Gantz to try to find 61 members of the 120-seat Knesset to back his own bid for the premiership; if he fails to do so within 28 days, the country will be headed for an unprecedented third election within a year.
With 33 seats for his neophyte Blue and White alliance, and potential anti-Netanyahu allies under his wing, Mr Gantz could conceivably form a minority government, with the support of the Joint List of Arab parties.
But for the politician who began his campaign boasting about having bombed the Hamas-controlled Palestinian enclave of Gaza into the stone age, a third election may be preferable. “The question is whether Gantz will be strong enough and brave enough to come to us and ask us,” said Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List.
Split by infighting and hobbled by low turnout among their base — nearly 20 per cent of the Israeli population — the Arab parties of Israel have regularly found themselves sidelined, maligned and ignored. But, surprisingly, in September’s election the 13 seats garnered by the Joint List became a bulwark that even Mr Netanyahu, the four-time prime minister and masterful coalition-builder, could not surmount.
The longest-serving Israeli prime minister’s race-baiting, anti-Arab campaign backfired, boosting Arab turnout — and even drawing in about 20,000 Jewish voters — leaving the Joint List in a position to deny him enough numbers to form a governing coalition.
Last week, as Mr Netanyahu’s plans for a governing coalition fell into disarray and party infighting, Mr Odeh, the mild-mannered, socialist, Hebrew-speaking leader of the Joint List, held court in Ajami, an Arab neighbourhood in south Tel Aviv.
Surrounded by images of Che Guevara, Karl Marx and Fidel Castro, he promised a small audience of ageing Arab men, stylish hipsters and passionate Israeli Jews to keep working on broadening his base ahead of the real possibility of a third election.
“If we are thinking of creating a leftwing bloc, we have to appeal to a broader base, and we have to present ourselves as a broader opposition,” he said.
Outside support for a minority government would not be unprecedented — Arab parties did the same for Yitzhak Rabin in the early 1990s to show support for the Oslo peace process. But it would be an unpopular decision, especially after Mr Netanyahu, Israel’s most influential public voice, spent much of the year demonising the Arab leadership and wooing openly racist, anti-Arab rightwing politicians into his camp.
Mr Odeh responded by running a simple campaign: a vote for the Arab parties is a vote to topple Mr Netanyahu. Since its success in September, the Joint List has kept voters motivated by national protests against the lack of policing to tackle crime in their neighbourhoods, forcing even Mr Netanyahu to pledge extra funds to Arab communities.
Behind the scenes, Mr Odeh has laid the ground for an approach from Mr Gantz. After the elections, the majority of the Joint List, which includes Islamists, centrists and communists, formally recommended that Mr Gantz be given the first chance to form a government, with three members withholding their recommendation on request from Mr Gantz, said Mr Odeh, in order to let Mr Netanyahu publicly fail first.
“I said to him, ‘take a clear assessment — how do you expect to beat the rightwing without our votes’,” said Mr Odeh, describing a private meeting between the two men that led to a rare joint appearance at an anti-Netanyahu rally. It worked partially, he assesses now; after his initial chest-beating about military victories over the Palestinians, Mr Gantz has largely refrained from criticising the Arab-Israeli population.
The prospect of a minority government supported by the Joint List has Mr Netanyahu frightened, said Mr Odeh. The prime minister now faces the possibility of being either in the opposition, or in the heat of a third campaign when he is indicted on long-expected charges of corruption in December. (Mr Netanyahu has denied the allegations and described them as a witch-hunt).
As it became clear that his own path to a majority was blocked, Mr Netanyahu has focused his considerable public relations machine on warning that such an outcome would leave Mr Gantz unable to fight against Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran.
But Mr Odeh is relishing the prospect of a third election. His party has momentum, and his rival is on the ropes. Either Mr Gantz approaches him soon to try out a minority government, or the country heads to the polls again, perhaps as early as January. “And this time, I promise, we will win 15 seats,” he said.