Former Israeli army chief Benny Gantz lost a slight advantage on Monday over rival and incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lead the new Israeli government after the recent election.
Arab-majority political parties who mainly represent Palestinian citizens of Israel announced their endorsement of Gantz on Sunday, marking the first time in 27 years that they backed an Israeli leader.
The so-called Joint List alliance, made up of four parties, is headed by Ayman Odeh and gained 13 seats in the Israeli election last week.Odeh announced the backing of Gantz by saying it was a bid to topple Netanyahu, whose anti-Arab rhetoric has infuriated and offended Palestinians in Israel during his decade in power.
It was projected to give Gantz 57 recommendations to become Israel’s new prime minister, ahead of Netanyahu by two.
But on Monday, three Joint List parliamentarians said they would not support Gantz, meaning Netanyahu would have one recommendation more than his opponent.
The three members of the Balad party announced they would not recommend either leader, saying given Gantz’s military background and ideology his views were not that different from Netanyahu’s right-wing party Likud.
Gantz was the Israel army’s chief of staff who oversaw the 2014 offensive on the Gaza Strip, which killed more than 2,000 people, many of them civilians.
Mtanes Shehadeh, Balad’s party leader, told Israeli media on Monday: “We always said we won’t support recommending Gantz… They don’t have Balad’s support… We are four partner parties. No one can force the other on matters of principle.”
Later, Joint List Chairman Ahmed Tibi sent President Reuven Rivlin a letter rescinding Balad’s recommendations.
Israel’s president will likely pick the candidate with the most recommendations – either Gantz or Netanyahu – who will then have 28 days to try to cobble together a government.
If the first candidate chosen fails within that time, the second is given the opportunity. If he too doesn’t manage, the country could head to an unprecedented third election.
The president’s post-election talks are usually a formality, but the largely ceremonial president is now playing a key role after the dead-even election result. He is expected to announce his choice Wednesday.
“There is one thing that the people are largely united over and that is the desire that there won’t be third elections,” Rivlin said.
Last week’s repeat election produced no clear winner, with Gantz’s Blue and White receiving 33 seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament and Netanyahu’s Likud garnering 31 seats. Both sides fell short of the 61-seat majority needed to form a government and, therefore, must seek the support of other parties.
Neither party can form a coalition without the eight seats won by former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, who on Sunday declined to endorse either candidate for prime minister.
Lieberman has pushed Gantz and Netanyahu to agree to sit with him in a broad, secular unity government, and both have agreed in theory – but disagree over who should head it.
Balad said a unity government would be “even worse than a right-wing one”.
“Balad voted along with the Joint List to take down Netanyahu and will keep working to prevent that, but at the same time don’t see Gantz as an alternative,” it said in a statement.
Last week’s vote was a never-before-held second election, which was triggered after Netanyahu was unable to forge a coalition and then dissolved parliament.