An Israeli Arab party that broke with its allies and refused to back Benny Gantz, the former army chief, as Israel’s next leader said Thursday that his policies were “virtually indistinguishable” from those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is widely reviled by the country’s Arab minority.
The party, Balad, was responding to what its leader described as a torrent of criticism that, by withholding an endorsement of Mr. Gantz, Balad had improved Mr. Netanyahu’s prospects for keeping his post as prime minister.
The Balad leader, Mtanes Shehadeh, said in an opinion article published by Israel’s Haaretz newspaper that most of that criticism is “unjustified and politically baseless.” He said that an endorsement of Mr. Gantz would have “obliged us to stray from the ideological principles that have guided us.”
The uncertain outcome of the Israeli election last week meant that President Reuven Rivlin had to decide which of the two leading contenders should have the first right to assemble a coalition government. On Wednesday, Mr. Rivlin chose Mr. Netanyahu, who has 28 days to assemble a parliamentary majority of at least 61 seats.
Mr. Shehadeh’s explanation of Balad’s position came three days after fellow Israeli Arab lawmakers in the Arab Joint List, the third-largest faction in the newly elected Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, announced they were recommending Mr. Gantz to “create the majority needed to prevent another term for Mr. Netanyahu.”
The Arab Joint List’s announcement seemed like a damaging blow to Mr. Netanyahu, the longtime prime minister, who is under indictment for corruption and whose political future remains in doubt.
CreditSergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
It was an extraordinary step for the Israeli Arab lawmakers, who have mostly sat out decisions on who should lead Israel, but felt obliged to make an exception regarding Mr. Netanyahu. Twenty percent of Israel’s citizens are Israeli Arabs, who deeply mistrust him.
Mr. Netanyahu has been criticized for his anti-Arab harangues to rally the base of support in his right-wing Likud party and allied Jewish religious parties.
Nonetheless Balad, which has three of the Arab Joint List’s 13 seats, did not join in the endorsement of Mr. Gantz. And even if Balad had joined, it is unclear that would have made a difference in the prospects for Mr. Gantz, who has not sought support from Israeli Arabs.
Mr. Gantz led the 50-day war against militant groups in Gaza five years ago, and shares many of the same views as Mr. Netanyahu regarding Israel’s Jewish identity, security and the Palestinians in occupied territories.
The Balad leader emphasized the similarities between Likud, and the Blue and White party of Mr. Gantz in explaining his own party’s position.
“On questions relating to the status of Israel’s Arabs — issues like substantive equality and recognizing Arab citizens as a national minority with collective rights — it’s virtually indistinguishable from Netanyahu’s Likud,” he wrote.
“Given this situation,” he wrote, “we couldn’t support him.”