The Arab bloc in Israel’s parliament broke with tradition Sunday and endorsed Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz for prime minister, giving the former military chief an edge for the job over incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu.

The historic endorsement highlighted the first day of President Reuven Rivlin’s crucial consultations with various party representatives. He’s set to meet with all the parliamentary factions before selecting his candidate for prime minister, after a deadlocked repeat election made forming any new government a daunting task.

It is the job of Israel’s largely ceremonial president to pick the politician with the best chance of forming a stable coalition government. While usually a formality, this time Rivlin plays a key role after an election earlier this month in which neither of the top candidates has an outright majority of 61 members in the 120-seat parliament. 

Near-final results show Blue and White will be the largest single party in the new parliament with 33 of the 120 seats, while Likud has won 31 seats, three less than it had before.

Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, gestures as he hands out pamphlets during an an election campaign event in northern Israel earlier this month. Odeh said the Joint List endorsed Gantz ‘to bring an end to the era of Netanyahu.’ (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

This is the second time in five months that Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud failed to secure a clear election victory. The centrist Blue and White party led by Gantz has a slight lead with nearly all votes counted.

Gantz has so far rebuffed Netanyahu’s calls to join a unity government with both Likud and Blue and White joining.

“We want to bring an end to the era of Netanyahu, so we recommend that Benny Gantz be the one to form the next government,” Joint List party head Ayman Odeh told Rivlin.

An increased turnout by Israel’s 21 per cent Arab minority saw the Arab-led bloc — known as the Joint List — win 13 seats, making it the third largest grouping. Though the Arab-led parties have never sat in an Israeli government, Odeh said he is planning to become opposition leader in the case of a unity government. This is the first time since 1992 that Arab-led parties have endorsed a candidate by selecting Gantz over Netanyahu. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, centre, and Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, stand next to each other at a memorial ceremony for late Israeli President Shimon Peres, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem Sept. 19, 2019. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

Its support does not mean it will sit in the governing coalition, but its backing gives Gantz’s centre-left bloc 57 seats, compared to Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc of 55.

With that nod, Gantz looks to edge Netanyahu in the number of lawmakers who will endorse him.

‘This is what the people want’

In a meeting with Likud party leaders, Rivlin said it was up to the “two biggest parties, the first and second that are almost equal in size, to join forces … so that you together manage and establish a system that brings a stable government.”

“This is what the people want. None of us can ignore that,” he said.

There were only narrow differences in the two main parties’ campaigns on many important issues, and an end to the Netanyahu era would be unlikely to bring significant changes in policy on relations with the United States, the regional struggle against Iran or the Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu and Gantz will continue to seek potential coalition allies, prominent among whom is the far-right former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman. He secured eight seats for his Yisrael Beitenu party, making him a potential kingmaker.

Lieberman on Sunday reiterated his call for a unity government and said he would not recommend either candidate in his meeting with Rivlin.

Religious parties representing Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox communities, known as Haredim, remain a significant force, with Shas winning nine seats and United Torah Judaism eight seats.

The right-wing Yamina won seven seats, the leftist Labor-Gesher six, and the Democratic Union five. Full official results are due to be published on Wednesday.