(Corrects name of Arab political group to Joint List coalition throughout)
* Israel held another inconclusive election this month
* Netanyahu battling for political survival
* Veteran leader indicted on corruption charges he denies
* Israeli president will tap candidate to form government
By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM, March 15 (Reuters) - The main rival to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won support from Israel’s Arab coalition on Sunday to form a government, potentially undermining Netanyahu’s plan to stay in power atop a proposed unity cabinet to fight the coronavirus outbreak.
After a third inconclusive election in less than a year left Netanyahu still three seats short of forming a majority, the prime minister has asked his main rival, general Benny Gantz, to agree to an “emergency government” to fight the global pandemic.
However, Gantz has so far been cool to the proposal, suggesting he could still try to form a minority government of his own, ousting Israel’s longest-serving leader.
Speaking at a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin, who is holding discussions with parties on forming a new government, Joint List head Ayman Odeh 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 the Israeli parliament, after achieving a record showing in the March 2 election.
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. But no Israeli government has ever included an Arab political party.
Netanyahu’s Likud party denounced any such plans: “While Netanyahu is handling a global and national crisis in the most responsible way, Gantz is racing to form a minority government depending on supporters of terror,” the party said on Twitter.
With Netanyahu facing criminal charges in three corruption cases - his trial was supposed to start on Tuesday but was postponed until May 24 amid the health crisis - political rivals have cast doubt on his motives for proposing a unity cabinet.
Gantz has said Netanyahu did not appear to be sincere, having yet to send a negotiating team to Gantz’s Blue and White party. “When you’re serious, we’ll talk,” Gantz wrote.
Gantz’s prospect of toppling Netanyahu could depend on former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party.
Lieberman, who was due to meet Rivlin later on Sunday, has balked at supporting a government backed by Arab legislators, accusing them of disloyalty to Israel. But he has also called for Netanyahu to leave power while under indictment.
Netanyahu, 70, has the pledged backing of 58 members of parliament, three short of a ruling majority in the 120-seat Knesset. He has denied any wrongdoing in the investigations. Charges against him include bribery, breach of trust and fraud. (Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Maayan Lubell, Kirsten Donovan and Peter Graff)