Sept. 22 (UPI) -- An alliance of Arab Israeli parties in a rare endorsement Sunday backed former army chief of staff Benny Gantz to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as President Reuven Rivlin began two days of consultations with party leaders to decide who will form a governing coalition.
Rivlin, who holds a largely ceremonial post, is attempting to find a way to end a deadlocked election rather than a third vote. On Sunday, he met with four of the nine parties that comprise the Knesset and plans to meet with the other leaders Monday.
Gantz's Blue and White Party captured about 40,000 more votes than Netanyahu's Likud Party in Tuesday's election but both fall short of forming a majority government in the 120-seat parliament. The election attracted a higher-than-expected 69.4 percent of eligible voters despite it being the second election in five months.
With 13 votes from the Joint List, Gantz would have 57 recommendations, overtaking Netanyahu. Other backers are Kahol Lavan's 33 lawmakers, Labor-Gesher's six elected representatives and the Democratic Union's five. Netanyahu has secured 55 votes, including endorsements Sunday from ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism.
However, Balad, one of the four parties that make up the Arab alliance, does not support the decision and did not send representatives to the president's office. Joint List confirmed that its decision would apply to all 13 of its elected lawmakers.
Balad, in a statement, said it "does not see Gantz as an alternative, when he and his party support the annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, threaten with a war in Gaza and unwilling to annul the racist Nation-State Law."
Palestinians living in the non-annexed portions of the West Bank do not have Israeli citizenship or voting rights in Israel, but are subject to movement restrictions of the Israeli government.
Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh said before meeting Rivlin, "we will recommend Benny Gantz as prime minister. We want to return to be legitimate political actors and bring an end to the Netanyahu government."
In a New York Times opinion published Sunday, he wrote: "I have argued earlier that if the center-left parties of Israel believe that Arab Palestinian citizens have a place in this country, they must accept that we have a place in its politics [. . .] We have decided to demonstrate that Arab Palestinian citizens can no longer be rejected or ignored. Our decision to recommend Mr. Gantz as the next prime minister without joining his expected national unity coalition government is a clear message that the only future for this country is a shared future, and there is no shared future without the full and equal participation of Arab Palestinian citizens."
Netanyahu, who has been prime minister since 2009 after holding the post from 1996-99, said "exactly what we've been warning of" has happened.
"Now, there are two options: Either a minority government backed by those who reject Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and praise terrorists ... would be formed, or a broad national unity government," he said.
Netanyhau said he would "work as much as I can to form a broad national unity government. There's no other solution."
Avigdor Liberman, who control eight seats with the Yisrael Beiteinu party, announced Sunday he wouldn't endorse either candidate.
"The commitments we've made to our voters are rock solid, and we won't budge at all," he said. "As soon as Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud decided to form a bloc with ultra-Orthodox parties and religious fanatics, we can't be part of that bloc."
Liberman said Gantz is "keeping the option of forming a government with the ultra-Orthodox and the Joint List. The ultra-Orthodox parties are not enemies, but political rivals. Joint List members are certainly enemies, wherever they may be."
Liberman said he would approve a unity government that includes Netanyahu and Glantz, and doesn't care which man becomes prime minister.
Last week, Gantz rejected an appeal by Netanyahu to meet and discuss a unity government.
After the election, Rivlin said parity between the two parties showed "loud and clear" that the majority of Israel's citizens wanted a "broad and stable national unity government."