The main rival to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won support from Israel’s Arab coalition on Sunday to form a government, potentially undermining Netanyahu’s plan to stay in power atop a proposed unity cabinet to fight the coronavirus outbreak.
After a third inconclusive election in less than a year left Netanyahu still three seats short of forming a majority, the prime minister has asked his main rival, Benny Gantz, the former chief of the Israeli military, to agree to an “emergency government” to fight the global pandemic.
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However, Gantz has so far been cool to the proposal, suggesting he could still try to form a minority government of his own, removing Israel’s longest-serving leader.
Israel’s president on Sunday said he has decided to give Gantz the first opportunity to form a new government. President Reuven Rivlin’s office announced his decision late on Sunday after consulting with leaders of all of the parties elected to parliament.
Speaking at a meeting with Rivlin, Joint List head Ayman Odeh said its voters had said “an emphatic ‘no’ to a right-wing government and Benjamin Netanyahu”.
The Joint List is now the third-biggest party in the Israeli parliament, after achieving a record showing in the March 2 election.
Odeh called Netanyahu a “serial inciter” against Israel’s Arab minority. His coalition would not join a government led by Gantz, but could potentially provide it enough votes to govern.
About a fifth of Israeli citizens are Palestinian by heritage but Israeli by citizenship. But no Israeli government has ever included an Arab political party.
Netanyahu’s Likud party denounced any such plans. “While Netanyahu is handling a global and national crisis in the most responsible way, Gantz is racing to form a minority government depending on supporters of terror,” the party said on Twitter.
With Netanyahu facing criminal charges in three corruption cases – his trial was supposed to start on Tuesday but was postponed until May 24 amid the health crisis – political rivals have cast doubt on his motives for proposing a unity cabinet.
Gantz has said Netanyahu did not appear to be sincere, having yet to send a negotiating team to Gantz’s Blue and White party. “When you’re serious, we’ll talk,” Gantz wrote.
Liberman recommends Gantz
Hours after all 15 members of the Joint List of Arab recommended Gantz, kingmaker Avigdor Liberman, of the ultranationalist, but secular Yisrael Beiteinu party, also said on Sunday he made the same recommendation to President Rivlin.
Gantz now has a majority of 61 out of 120 members.
Following the decision by Liberman, whose party won seven seats in the March 2 vote, Rivlin summoned Gantz and Netanyahu to an “urgent” meeting at his Jerusalem residence on Sunday night, to discuss a possible emergency unity government – including Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White.
The latest elections on March 2 did not hand a decisive majority to either Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and religious parties, nor the Gantz-led bloc of centre-left and Arab parties.