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Arab bloc in Israel’s parliament endorses Gantz for prime minister

World News | Published:

The historic move marked the first time in nearly three decades that the Arab parties backed a candidate for prime minster.

Israel election

The Arab bloc in Israel’s parliament abandoned its usual hands-off stance on Sunday and endorsed former military chief Benny Gantz for prime minister.

The move potentially gives him the edge over hardline incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu.

The historic move marked the first time in nearly three decades that the Arab parties backed a candidate for prime minster, reflecting their contempt for Mr Netanyahu, who was accused of fomenting hatred of the Arabs during his re-election campaign.

“Benny Gantz is not our cup of tea,” said Arab lawmaker Ahmad Tibi.

“But we promised our constituents that we would do everything to topple Netanyahu, and the default here is recommending Benny Gantz.”

Israel election
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin speaks during a consultation meeting with members of the Likud party (Menahem Kahana/Pool/AP)

It will be up to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to decide which candidate should be given the chance to form a coalition government and serve as prime minister – a task made difficult this time by last week’s deadlocked parliamentary elections.

Neither Mr Gantz, the leader of the centrist Blue and White party, nor Mr Netanyahu, head of the conservative Likud movement, has a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, or 61 members.

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But with the backing of the Arab parties, Mr Gantz gained a slight advantage. He could have as many as 57 backers, compared with Mr Netanyahu’s 55.

Maverick politician Avigdor Lieberman, head of the mid-size Yisrael Beitenu party, controls the final eight seats, making him the key powerbroker.

But he announced Sunday that he is not endorsing either candidate.

Israel election
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

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The endorsement by the Joint List, a bloc of four small Arab parties that controls 13 seats, marked a turning point in Israeli politics.

Arab parties have traditionally refrained from endorsing a candidate for prime minister, and they have never sat in a coalition government, not wanting to be seen as legitimising Israeli policies.

Although many Israeli Arabs remain angry at Mr Gantz for leading the military’s devastating war against Gaza militants in 2014, their fury toward Mr Netanyahu runs much deeper.

Mr Netanyahu’s campaign repeatedly accused the Arabs of trying to “steal” the election, drawing accusations of racism and incitement.

There is also deep-seated anger over a law passed by Mr Netanyahu’s government in 2018 that declared Israel to be the nation-state of the Jewish people. Arabs believe the law codifies discrimination.

Israel election
Benjamin Netanyahu addresses his supporters (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Though the Arab parties are still expected to stay out of Mr Gantz’s future government, their endorsement reflects a growing desire of Israel’s large Arab minority to take a more active role in shaping the country.

Writing in The New York Times, Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, argued that his move should end Mr Netanyahu’s political career and provide a watershed moment for Israel’s Arab minority.

“If the centre-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,” he wrote.

“There is no shared future without the full and equal participation of Arab Palestinian citizens.”

Mr Netanyahu reacted by saying: “As we warned, the Arab parties that oppose Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and glorify terrorists recommended Gantz for prime minister.”

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