JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The main rival to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won support from Israel’s Arab party 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, general Benny Gantz, to agree to an “emergency government” to fight the global pandemic.
However, Gantz has so far been cool to the proposal, suggesting he could still try to form a minority government of his own, ousting Israel’s longest-serving leader.
Speaking at a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin, who is holding discussions with parties on forming a new government, Arab List head Ayman Odeh said its voters had said “an emphatic ‘no’ to a right-wing government and Benjamin Netanyahu”.
About a fifth of Israeli citizens are Arabs but no Israeli government has ever included an Arab political party. The Arab 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 party would not join a government led by Gantz, but could potentially provide it enough votes to govern.
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.
Gantz’s prospect of toppling Netanyahu could depend on former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party.
Lieberman, who was due to meet Rivlin later on Sunday, has balked at supporting a government backed by Arab legislators, accusing them of disloyalty to Israel. But he has also called for Netanyahu to leave power while under indictment.
Netanyahu, 70, has the pledged backing of 58 members of parliament, three short of a ruling majority in the 120-seat Knesset. He has denied any wrongdoing in the investigations. Charges against him include bribery, breach of trust and fraud.
Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Maayan Lubell, Kirsten Donovan and Peter Graff
Imag: FILE PHOTO: A combination picture shows Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 23, 2019 and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Kiryat Malachi, Israel March 1, 2020. REUTERS/Corinna Kern, Amir Cohen/File Photo