JERUSALEM – In a historic move, an alliance of Arab Israeli parties recommended a prime ministerial candidate to President Reuven Rivlin for the first time in almost three decades, saying in consultations Sunday that it would support a bid by former army chief of staff Benny Gantz to replace Benjamin Netanyahu.
The process of selecting Israel’s next prime minister has entered its second stage, with eyes firmly on the country’s largely ceremonial president to see whether he can find a way out of a deadlocked election result and avert a third vote.
Traditionally, Arab parties refrain from recommending a candidate as an ideological protest at Israel’s ongoing military occupation of the Palestinians. The last time an Arab party recommended a candidate for prime minister was in 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister. Two years later, he signed the historic Oslo accords with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
In his Sunday meeting with Rivlin, Joint List leader Ayman Odeh said, “We will recommend Benny Gantz as prime minister. We want to return to be legitimate political actors and bring an end to the Netanyahu government.”
Rivlin held consultations with representatives of four of the nine political blocs, including the Joint List of Arab parties, that make up Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. After meeting with the rest of the factions on Monday, he will choose between Netanyahu and Gantz, giving one of them the first stab at forming the next government.
Also breaking with precedent was Avigdor Liberman, the hawkish former defense minister. In the past, he has been loyal to Netanyahu, but he said he could not support the long-serving leader this time because of his close alignment with religious and right-wing parties. He also said he would not recommend Gantz because of the support from the Joint List.
Liberman said the only way forward was to form a unity government that included both Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White. It does not matter which of the two men is prime minister first, he said.
The results of Tuesday’s general election gave Blue and White about 40,000 more votes than Likud, but neither faction gained enough seats to form a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. And neither, it appears, will be able to muster enough support from their ideological blocs to carve a stable coalition. Similar in size, with 33 and 31 seats, respectively, Blue and White and Likud could form a strong, centrist government.
Rivlin said Thursday that the parity between the two parties indicated “loud and clear” that the majority of Israel’s citizens wanted to see a “broad and stable national unity government.”
He said the stalemate, which began after a first round of elections – in April – left Netanyahu unable to secure a coalition, had gone on for too long. He called on all candidates to quickly “work towards forming a government that can serve the State of Israel and the people of Israel again.”
“President Rivlin, who normally has a ceremonial role, much like the queen of England, has now been thrust into a role of great importance,” said Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent and analyst for the Jerusalem Post.
“He is really being looked to as the unifier that Israel so desperately needs,” Hoffman said.
It is unclear how Rivlin will get the sides to cooperate, with their campaigns having promised not to be part of a government that includes certain candidates or certain parties. It is not even clear how he will decide who will be given the first chance at forming the government. Tradition dictates that the opportunity be offered to the person most likely to succeed, but with that appearing near impossible for either leader, the president might need to find alternative criteria.
“This situation has never happened before, and therefore it’s hard to know what the options are before the president,” said Mordechai Kremnitzer, professor emeritus in law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.
Kremnitzer said that because Israel is in such an “unusual situation, it is possible that the president will choose something that is equally unusual.”
At least through Sunday, neither party appeared willing to budge. An appeal by Netanyahu for Gantz to meet and discuss a unity government was rejected Thursday, with Gantz making clear that as leader of the largest party he intended to become Israel’s next prime minister.
He also reiterated a commitment to a unity government, as long as it does not include Netanyahu, who faces possible criminal indictments in three cases of fraud, bribery and breach of trust.
Immediately after the election, Netanyahu signed a pact with two ultra-Orthodox parties and a smaller religious nationalist party, boosting his support in the Knesset to 55 seats. Likud insists that as the head of the largest bloc, it should lead the charge. At this stage, it has refused to remove Netanyahu as party leader.