The main Israeli opposition alliance battling to end Benjamin Netanyahu’s decade-long rule was thrown into turmoil after its leader signalled that he was willing to enter a unity government with the prime minister.
Benny Gantz abandoned the Blue and White alliance, which he has led against Mr Netanyahu in three elections during the past 11 months, to temporarily take up the post of parliamentary Speaker — with the backing of the prime minister’s Likud party and other rightwing groups.
Mr Gantz’s surprise decision increases the likelihood of Mr Netanyahu extending his term in office, and came just 10 days after the opposition leader was asked to try to form the next coalition government after no group secured a majority in the latest parliamentary election on March 2.
Mr Gantz explained his move by saying it was designed to keep alive talks aimed at establishing a so-called “corona government” to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.
“These are not normal days and they call for special decisions. Therefore, as I’ve said, I intend to examine and advance, in any possible way, the creation of a national emergency government,” Mr Gantz said in parliament late on Thursday.
But the former military chief’s allies accused him of surrendering to Mr Netanyahu.
Mr Netanyahu, whose own trial for corruption has been delayed to May 25 because of coronavirus-related court closures, has repeatedly floated the option of a unity government with Mr Gantz, provided it allows him to remain premier.
The initiative includes a rotating premiership, which would mean Mr Netanyahu would step down after 18 months and hand over the reins to Mr Gantz. Until then, Mr Gantz could serve as defence minister or foreign minister and have a pick of other cabinet posts for members of his own smaller political party, according to reports in the local media.
Mr Gantz’s Resilience party, which had aligned itself to Yesh Atid, a party focused on middle class issues, to lead the Blue and White alliance, was immediately assailed by jilted allies for abandoning a central pillar of the alliance — dislodging Mr Netanyahu from power.
“What’s being formed today isn’t a unity government and not an emergency government — it’s another Netanyahu government, ” said Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid. “Benny Gantz surrendered without a fight and crawled into Netanyahu’s government.”
Mr Lapid’s team leaked a screenshot of him leaving the Blue and White leadership’s WhatsApp messaging group.
Israel has been blighted by political paralysis since no group managed to secure the 61 seats required for a majority in parliament at three consecutive elections.
The position of parliamentary Speaker become available after the incumbent, a Netanyahu ally, resigned this week over a dispute about whether parliament should be suspended because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Yuli Edelstein, the outgoing Speaker, had initially refused to convene parliament, in what the opposition deemed an attempt by Likud to cling on to power. He resigned after the Supreme Court ordered the Knesset to sit and schedule a vote to elect a new Speaker.
Mr Netanyahu, who is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has been heading a caretaker government since the first inconclusive election in April last year.