Why is Israel’s Arab Joint List Party Now Supporting Benny Gantz?

As Israel’s new political impasse enters its second week after a highly divisive election, a breakthrough seems to be in sight following the endorsement of Benny Gantz by the Arabic Joint List party. The political alliance which is mainly made up of Arab political parties, recommended to President Reuven Rivlin that Gantz be given the mandate to form a government.

Gantz’s Promise

This recommendation resulted in Rivlin officially tasking Gantz with forming a government. While accepting the offer Gantz stated: “I give you my word I will do everything to establish within days, as few as I can, a national government. One that is patriotic and broad as possible.”

The Joint List with its 15 members gives Gantz the much needed boost in forming a government. The Blue and White leader has also received support from former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman of the ultra nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party. In total the pro-Gantz bloc now has a majority of 61 Knesset seats: enough to form a government.

Why is the Joint List Backing Gantz?

However what surprised many was the sudden change of heart by the Joint List politicians to support Gantz despite the deep ideological differences that exist between them. What is clear is that the support is being driven much more by their goal of ousting Benjamin Netanyahu than by any love for Gantz.

The schism between Netanyahu and members of the Joint List stem from the Likud leader’s radical nationalist and religiously hardline policies. Although most leaders of the Joint List are Israelis, they have always been sympathetic to the Palestinian causes apart from fighting for their own rights as Israeli Arabs.

Exacerbating these tensions is Netanyahu’s ongoing incitement of anti-Arab sentiments in his attempts to win right wing support. Last year his official Facebook account was suspended for hate speech over a post that stated that Israel’s Arab politicians “want to destroy us all.”

Joint List’s Past Support for Gantz

It is not the first time the Joint List is endorsing Gantz. Following the September 2019 election the alliance recommended to the president that Gantz should be given the first opportunity to form a government. As Joint List leader Ayman Odeh stated in an op-ed in the New York Times, his party supports Gantz was because “it would create the majority needed to prevent another term for Netanyahu. It should be the end of his political career.”

But despite the 2019 endorsement Gantz refused to give any public comment as the pro-Netanyahu camp heightened its smear campaign against him. Gantz’s real stance on the Joint List has always been murky. This has mainly been influenced by the fear of a backlash from the conservatives who distrust the alliance because of its support for the Palestinians. At the same time for the sake of political expediency and in his attempts to forge political unity he has been very measured in his statements touching on the Joint List.

Gantz: ‘This Incitement Campaign is Inappropriate and Wrong’

Late last year when Netanyahu made a speech in parliament accusing the Joint List members of the Knesset of being terrorists, Gantz stood in opposition to the remarks stating,”I do not accept the incitement that was directed against Knesset members who are his political rivals.” He continued, “In general, I do not accept the incitement that was directed against Arab members of the Knesset who represent a public that is a legitimate part of the State of Israel. This incitement campaign is inappropriate and wrong.”

This moderate stand on the Joint List has often given Netanyahu ammunition to attack Gantz as a terrorist sympathizer. Just after Joint List endorsement in September, Netanyahu issued a statement saying he was seeking to form “a minority government that relies on those who reject Israel as a Jewish state and glorify terrorists who murder our soldiers and civilians.”

Netanyahu’s Angry Denunciation of Gantz: He Supports ‘Arab Politicians Who Want to Destroy Us All’

In fact part of the Facebook post that led to the suspension of Netanyahu’s account rallied his supporters to “prevent the formation of a dangerous left wing government whose Jewish leaders would rely on the support of Arab politicians who want to destroy us all, women, children and men, and enable a nuclear Iran that would wipe us out.”

In the run up to the March 2020 elections because of the concerted efforts by Netanyahu to link him with the Joint List, Gantz declared that he would not accept the support of the group. “I am not afraid to speak to any legitimate political party, but the Joint List will not be part of the government I form,” he said. “My disagreements with its leadership on national and security issues are deep, difficult and unbridgeable.”

By the same token, Joint List leader Ayman Odeh had ruled out supporting Gantz unless he dropped certain elements of Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, such as the transfer of Arab Israeli to a Palestinian state and the imposition of Isreali sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and areas of the West Bank.

The Joint-List and Gantz Agreement

However the two sides seem to have now dropped their har-line stances in their efforts to remove Netanyahu and to avoid a fourth election. The leaders of the two organizations held a meeting during which Gantz stated that he intends to form a government that serves Jews and Arabs, while Odeh tweeted, “We stick to our goal of replacing Netanyahu’s legacy, and it starts by respecting the united voice of the Arab public and our Jewish partners.”

It remains to be seen how the pro-Gantz political parties will work together in a Gantz-led government. Traditionally the Joint List members have always refused to serve in the government since they feel that would be akin to endorsing Israel’s policies on Palestine. On the other hand, Lieberman who has previously also endorsed Netanyahu, has vowed not to serve in a government with the Joint List. Therefore, the most likely scenario would be for the Joint List to support the government from outside.