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Israel's Gantz woos Joint List after reaching agreement with Lieberman

Former army chief moves a step closer to cobbling together unlikely coalition that could yet oust Netanyahu
Leader of Israeli centrist party Blue and White electoral alliance Benny Gantz (R) and leader of the Israeli secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party Avigdor Lieberman (AFP)

Benny Gantz on Monday began wooing the Palestinian Joint List in an attempt to upend expectations and form a government after coming to an agreement with Israel’s kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman.

The former army chief told the Joint List leaders Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas that he was intent on forming an administration that would work for both Jews and Arabs, local daily Haaretz reported.

He repeated his intention to “prevent a fourth election”.

“I spoke with Benny Gantz and made it clear to him that the Joint List would work to advance the interests of all citizens as a united faction on its four components,” Odeh tweeted after the meeting.

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“We are committed to our goal of replacing [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's legacy and it begins by honouring the united voice of the Arab public and our Jewish partners.”

Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, has twice in the past year refused to sit with either Netanyahu or his chief rival Gantz.

That forced Israelis to vote in three elections in a year, with each round throwing up similar results that give no one a clear path to power.

Despite being shy of a majority once again, Netanyahu has declared victory with his Likud party winning the largest number of votes.

The desire of Gantz, Lieberman and the Joint List to remove Netanyahu from office could yet foil the prime minister, however.

Together Gantz’s Blue and White and Yisrael Beiteinu have 45 out of the 61 seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, needed to form a governing coalition.

Assuming that the Labor-Gesher-Meretz slate joins in with its seven, Gantz will seek to employ the support of the Joint List, a coalition of Palestinian parties that won 15 seats.

Minority government

What form of support that could be is unclear.

There are large question marks over the level of participation the Joint List would have in any coalition. It is likely Gantz is seeking to form a minority government with a supply-and-demand agreement with the Joint List.

However, Gantz helped alienate the Palestinian party by following Netanyahu’s lead and using increasingly hostile language about Arabs during the election campaign, talk that has been denounced as racist.

The Joint List – the third-largest party in parliament – will be reticent to support someone so recently aggressive about them. Balad, one of the four parties that makes up the slate, was absent from Monday’s meeting.

Lieberman, who is a notorious agitator against Arabs and Palestinians, met with Gantz before the latter’s meeting with the Joint List and said positive things about the discussions. The details of their agreement, he said, would be revealed later.

But he may have issues with a large amount of Arab participation, and two Blue and White MPs - Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser - have been openly critical of the idea of forming a minority government backed by the Joint List.

Sami Abu Shehadeh, a Balad MP, tweeted that Gantz should work on getting Hendel and Hauser in line before trying to convince the Joint List to support him.

“The politics of conquer and divide… can’t work now… Gantz doesn’t understand that the Joint List is not Kahol Lavan [Blue and While]. We’re united,” he said.

Balad’s leader Mtanes Shehadeh said he “wasn’t expecting a phone call from Gantz, and it wasn’t surprised when he didn’t call,” but added that removing Netanyahu and his “racist policy” was a priority.