Israel's Arab coalition, Lieberman back Netanyahu rival Gantz

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main challenger, Benny Gantz, won support on Sunday from two key parties in his bid to oust Israel’s longest-serving leader and form a new government.

Fighting for his political life under the cloud of a criminal indictment for alleged corruption, Netanyahu has proposed that he lead a six-month “national emergency” government to confront the coronavirus crisis.

It would include his right-wing Likud party and former general Gantz’s centrist Blue and White faction.

With no clear winner in a March 2 election, President Reuven Rivlin held consultations with the leaders of all parties that won legislative seats on who to tap to begin coalition-building.

Endorsements by two bitter enemies, the Joint List of Arab parties and former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beiteinu, appeared to give Gantz the edge with 61 of parliament’s 120 seats versus 58 for Netanyahu.

In power for the past 10 years after an initial term from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu, 70, has denied any wrongdoing in three corruption cases.

The coronavirus emergency led to restrictions that delayed the start on Tuesday of his trial on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges, to May 24.

Rivlin, who has voiced support for a unity government invited Netanyahu and Gantz to meet him at 1730 GMT. Gantz has been cool on teaming up with Netanyahu, citing the legal action.

But after three inconclusive elections in less than a year, it was unclear whether Gantz could find a formula for a Blue and White-led government underpinned by Arab legislators and Lieberman, who have long had an acrimonious relationship.

Speaking at a televised meeting with Rivlin, Joint List head Ayman Odeh endorsed Gantz and said its voters had said “an emphatic ‘no’ to a right-wing government and Benjamin Netanyahu”.

The Joint List is now the third biggest party in parliament, with 15 legislators.

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Odeh called Netanyahu a “serial inciter” against Israel’s Arab minority. His coalition would not join a government led by Gantz, but could potentially provide it enough votes to govern.

About a fifth of Israeli citizens are Arabs, Palestinian by heritage but Israeli by citizenship. No Israeli government has ever included an Arab political party.

Lieberman, at his session with Gantz, said: “We recommend Benny Gantz for a very, very simple reason. In the previous election, we said the most important thing was to prevent a fourth election.”

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