Israel’s Arab Parties Back Benny Gantz to End Netanyahu’s Grip

By David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner

ImageAyman Odeh, center, with other candidates from the Arab Joint List, an alliance of predominantly Arab parties.
Ayman Odeh, center, with other candidates from the Arab Joint List, an alliance of predominantly Arab parties.CreditCreditAhmad Gharabli/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

JERUSALEM — After 27 years of sitting out decisions on who should lead Israel, Arab lawmakers on Sunday recommended that Benny Gantz, the centrist former army chief, get the first chance to form a government over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a watershed assertion of political power.

Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Arab Joint List, wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed published on Sunday that the alliance’s 13 incoming lawmakers — the third-largest faction in the newly elected Parliament — had decided to recommend Mr. Gantz because it would “create the majority needed to prevent another term for Mr. Netanyahu.”

“It should be the end of his political career,” Mr. Odeh wrote.

The Arab lawmakers’ recommendation, which Mr. Odeh and other members of the Joint List delivered to President Reuven Rivlin in a face-to-face meeting Sunday evening, reflected Arab citizens’ impatience to integrate more fully into Israeli society and to have their concerns be given greater weight by Israeli lawmakers.

“There is no doubt a historic aspect to what we are doing now,” Mr. Odeh said in the meeting with the president, which was broadcast live.

Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud party responded furiously to the Joint List’s recommendation, continuing an anti-Arab campaign as if the election was yet to take place.

“There are now two options,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a video clip soon after the meeting between members of the Joint List and the president. “Either there will be a minority government that relies on those who reject Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and glorify terrorists who murder our soldiers and civilians, or there will be a broad national government.”

“I know what the answer is and so do you,” he continued, “which is why I will work as hard as I can to form a broad national unity government.”

There was no immediate word from Mr. Gantz or his Blue and White party.

The Joint List’s recommendation was a striking act of comeuppance for Mr. Netanyahu, who for years had rallied his right-wing supporters by inflaming anti-Arab sentiments. Before the Sept. 17 election, he accused Arab politicians of trying to steal the election and at one point accused them of wanting to “destroy us all.”

Israeli Arabs “have chosen to reject Benjamin Netanyahu, his politics of fear and hate, and the inequality and division he advanced for the past decade,” Mr. Odeh wrote in the Op-Ed for The Times.

ImageMemebers of the Joint List party at a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin of Israel in Jerusalem, on Sunday.
Memebers of the Joint List party at a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin of Israel in Jerusalem, on Sunday.CreditPool photo by Menahem Kaahana

It was all the more surprising that the Arab lawmakers chose to end a quarter-century of noninvolvement by endorsing Mr. Gantz, a former army chief of staff. He led a devastating, 50-day war against the militant groups in Gaza five years ago. Blue and White has three former military chiefs in its top four slots, who appeared in a past campaign video in full battle dress.

In a further gesture of outreach to the Israeli mainstream, Mr. Odeh quoted from Psalms 118:22, telling Mr. Rivlin, in Hebrew, “The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone” — a verse cited in Jewish and Christian scriptures and liturgies.

Still, even though the Joint List recommended that Mr. Gantz be asked first to form a government, Mr. Odeh wrote that the group would not itself enter a government led by Mr. Gantz because he had not agreed to embrace its entire “equality agenda.”

That agenda consists of various positions, among them, changing housing and planning laws to treat Arab and Jewish neighborhoods the same; resuming peace talks with the Palestinians; and repealing the law passed last year that declared Israel the nation-state only of the Jewish people.

Also, one of several predominantly Arab parties making up the Joint List, Balad, which accounts for three of the alliance’s 13 seats, opposed recommending Mr. Gantz. Its representatives did not attend the meeting with the president. Some Arab lawmakers described Mr. Gantz as a “default choice.”

The last time Arab lawmakers recommended a prime minister was in 1992, when two Arab parties with a total of five seats in Parliament recommended Yitzhak Rabin — another former chief of staff — though they did not join his government.

“We have decided to demonstrate that Arab Palestinian citizens can no longer be rejected or ignored,” Mr. Odeh wrote.

In the 1992 election, Mr. Rabin initially held a narrow majority in the 120-seat Knesset even without the Arab parties’ support, though he came to rely on it a year later after Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party, quit the government when Mr. Rabin signed the Oslo peace accords.

Mr. Odeh wrote that the decision to support Mr. Gantz was meant as “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 Palestinian citizens.”

Mr. Gantz narrowly edged the prime minister in the national election last Tuesday. Afterward, both candidates called for unity, but differed on how to achieve it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel at the Likud party campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv, after the polls closed in the recent election.CreditSergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

The former army chief appears to lack a 61-seat majority even with the Joint List’s support.

He emerged from the election with 57 seats, including those of allies on the left and the Joint List, compared with 55 seats for Mr. Netanyahu and his right-wing allies.

Some analysts questioned whether Balad’s three seats would ultimately be counted as being on Mr. Gantz’s side, since Balad refused to endorse him, potentially leaving Mr. Gantz with only 54 supporters.

Avigdor Liberman, leader of the secular, right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, which won eight seats, is in position to be a kingmaker, but said on Sunday that he would not recommend any candidate. He said Mr. Odeh and the Joint List were not merely political opponents, but “the enemies” and belonged in the “Parliament in Ramallah,” not in the Knesset.

Mr. Liberman said that Mr. Gantz called him on Sunday night, and that the pair agreed to meet on Monday.

Mr. Rivlin began hearing the recommendations of each major party Sunday evening and was to finish on Monday, before entrusting the task of forming a government to whichever candidate he believes has the best chance of being successful.

In remarks at the start of that process, Mr. Rivlin said the Israeli public wanted a unity government including both Blue and White and Likud.

On paper, the Joint List’s recommendation increases the chances that Mr. Rivlin will give Mr. Gantz the first crack at forming a government.

But analysts said the postelection imbroglio was far from resolved.

In deciding who is better placed to form a viable and stable coalition, Mr. Rivlin may take more than the basic numbers of recommendations into consideration, according to experts. In addition to Balad’s non-endorsement, he could, for example, take into account the Joint List’s broader refusal to join a Gantz-led government in weighing Mr. Gantz’s prospects.

In any case, there are risks for both Mr. Gantz and Mr. Netanyahu in being the first to try to form a government, and analysts were already parsing the pros and cons of going first. Each might prefer their rival to try first and fail, in the hope that the second time around, it may be easier to persuade potential partners to cooperate in order to prevent a third election.

For Mr. Gantz, there could be an additional advantage in waiting: Mr. Netanyahu is facing a looming indictment in three corruption cases on accusations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and he could be charged in the coming weeks or months.

A version of this article appears in print on , Section A, Page 11 of the New York edition with the headline: In Show of Political Power, Arab Lawmakers Back Gantz to Lead Israel. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe