Israel‘s main Arab political parties endorsed ex-military chief Benny Gantz for prime minister, breaking a nearly 27-year-long standard of not endorsing a candidate in the hope of removing current leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
The leader of the so-called Joint List, Ayman Odeh, said on Sunday the alliance’s decision was not an endorsement of Gantz’s policies or the man himself.
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Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party won the most seats in the September 17 election with 33 out of parliament’s 120 seats, while Netanyahu’s Likud finished second with 31. Meanwhile, the Joint List coalition won 13 seats, making it the third-largest grouping.
Sixty-one seats are needed to form a government.
“This will be the most significant step towards helping create the majority needed to prevent another term for Mr Netanyahu. And it should be the end of his political career,” Odeh wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times newspaper, released on Sunday as he met President Reuven Rivlin at his residence in West Jerusalem.
Rivlin spent the day meeting with officials from the major parties to break the deadlock and form a government.
Neither the Joint List nor the Blue and White Party indicated they planned to work together if Gantz formed a coalition government.
But the endorsement “is 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 Arab-Palestinian citizens”, Odeh wrote.
It was the first time that majority Arab parties had endorsed a candidate for prime minister since 1992, when they backed Yitzhak Rabin, who went on to sign the Oslo Accords, agreements aimed at fulfilling the right to self-determination for Palestinians.
The break from tradition showed the Arab parties, and their Arab constituents who came out in increased numbers, wanted to “engage more in Israeli politics”, said Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from West Jerusalem.
“What the Joint List is saying is that they want social policies, policing policies, economic policies changed in this country,” Fawcett said.
But it was far from certain on Sunday if the endorsement would succeed in ending Netanyahu’s 13-year tenure as prime minister.
“Now the question is how the other parties will respond to this,” Fawcett said.
Rivlin, who as president must designate someone to form a government at the end of the discussions, has said he believes Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White should be in the next coalition.
There has been speculation he will bring Gantz and Netanyahu together to explore options for a unity government.
Tuesday’s elections ended in yet another impasse. A similar stalemate in April resulted in Netanyahu calling a new election instead of forming a coalition that he might not be chosen to helm.
Five days after ballots were cast, neither party has an obvious path to victory.
An offer from Netanyahu to form a broad unity government, in which he would remain prime minister, was rejected by Gantz on Thursday.
After the Joint List announced its endorsement, Netanyahu again called for a unity government saying “there is no other solution”.
While meeting with Likud leaders on Sunday, Rivlin also urged the two parties to “join forces … so that you together manage and establish a system that brings a stable government”.
“This is what the people want. None of us can ignore that,” Rivlin said, according to AFP news agency.
Rivlin pledged to “make every effort to prevent a third set of elections”, Harel Tubi, director-general of the president’s office, told Israel’s army radio on Sunday.
Gantz is expected to receive the endorsement of 57 seats in the coming days, while Netanyahu is expected to receive 55 throughout the Rivlin-led talks.
However, those totals do not include the eight seats won by ex-defence minister Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, a potential kingmaker in the dealings.
On Sunday, Lieberman, who has insisted on a unity government, refrained from endorsing either Netanyahu or Gantz.
Palestinian citizens of Israel make up about 20 percent of the Israeli population and have long complained of being victims of state racism.
During his campaign, Netanyahu pledged to annex illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank and to “apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea immediately” if he won the election.
Gantz, who made similar pledges in the past, has called for pursuing peace with the Palestinians and has remained largely silent on the US-sponsored so-called Middle East peace plan – the details of which are expected to be rolled out following the formation of the Israeli government.
But analysts say it is unlikely an end to the Netanyahu era would bring significant changes in policy on relations with the United States, the regional struggle against Iran, or the Palestinian conflict.