Benjamin Netanyahu’s grip on power slipped further last night after Israel’s Arab minority party threw its support behind his rival Benny Gantz, virtually guaranteeing that Mr Gantz will get the first chance to form a government.
The decision by the Joint List, which mainly represents Israel’s 2 million Palestinian citizens, is the first time since 1992 that an Arab party has endorsed a Jewish candidate like Mr Gantz to be prime minister.
Ayman Odeh, the Joint List leader, said he was backing Mr Gantz to bring an end to Mr Netanyahu’s 13 years in power.
“This will be the most significant step toward helping create the majority needed to prevent another term for Mr. Netanyahu. And it should be the end of his political career,” Mr Odeh said in a New York Times op-ed.
Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party put out a furious statement in response. “As we warned, the Arab parties that oppose Israel as a Jewish and democratic State and glorify terrorists recommended Gantz for prime minister,” the party said.
The support of the Joint List means that Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, will almost certainly allow Mr Gantz the first chance to form a coalition government. It will be the first time since 2009 that anyone other than Mr Netanyahu has been given the task.
But that does not mean Mr Gantz, a former army general, will necessarily succeed in cobbling together a majority. He says he hopes to form a national unity government with Likud but only if Mr Netanyahu, who is facing criminal corruption charges, agrees to resign.
Mr Netanyahu is refusing to budge and so far his Likud ministers are remaining loyal to him. If Mr Gantz is unable to form a government within 42 days then Mr Netanyahu will get another chance to take up the task.
If neither man is successful, Israel could be plunged into an unprecedented third election in a year.
There were reports last night that both Mr Gantz’s Blue & White and Mr Netanyahu’s Likud were maneuvering to be allowed to go second in forming a government because they believed the first chance was a poison chalice likely to end in failure.
The Israeli president said meanwhile that he hoped the two parties could find a way to bridge their differences and come together in a unity government. “A stable government cannot be a government without both of the two largest parties,” Mr Rivlin said.
While the Joint List is backing Mr Gantz to be prime minister, the party will not actually join a potential Gantz government nor adds its 13 seats towards his majority.
Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of a secular nationalist party which holds the balance between pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu parties in parliament, said he was not backing Mr Gantz or Mr Netanyahu at this stage.
Mr Lieberman, who has a history of incendiary rhetoric towards Palestinians, said he could not support Mr Gantz if the Arabs were supporting him. “They're enemies. Wherever they sit we'll be on the other side."
That leaves Mr Gantz with a perilously narrow path to forming a majority government without joining forces with Likud.