Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz agreed to an emergency unity government that will return Mr Netanyahu to the prime minister’s office for a record fifth premiership while averting a fourth election as the country deals with the coronavirus outbreak.
Mr Gantz, who served as Mr Netanyahu’s army chief before entering politics as his rival, broke away from his own electoral alliance, the fledgling Blue and White Party, to back the right-swing stalwart in a rotating premiership.
Under the deal, Israeli media reported that Mr Netanyahu would step down after an initial period, clearing the way for Mr Gantz, who would be named either foreign minister or defence minister in the interim, to take his place. Mr Gantz will also be deputy prime minister in the initial government, according to the reports.
After three straight elections over the past year left both men unable to form a governing coalition, Mr Gantz abandoned the central premise of his campaign — that Mr Netanyahu, who is under indictment for corruption, is unfit to be prime minister until he clears his name in court.
Mr Netanyahu’s trial was delayed to late May after he shut down the courts in response to the coronavirus outbreak. When the courts reopen, it will mark the first time a sitting Israeli premier has had to defend himself against criminal charges. He denies the charges, and has blamed a leftwing conspiracy to topple his government.
The new coalition agreement allows Mr Netanyahu a veto over the appointment of the next attorney-general and state prosecutors, the Ha’aretz newspaper reported. The prime minister has led a campaign to discredit the current occupants of those offices during a years-long investigation into his dealings with wealthy businessmen.
Mr Gantz and Mr Netanyahu had been in heated negotiations for more than a month after March elections left both men just a few MP’s short of the 61-seat majority. Talks stalled over judicial appointments and the possibility of unilateral annexation of wide swaths of the occupied West Bank.
Mr Netanyahu’s other coalition allies include two ultraorthodox parties and an extreme rightwing party called Yamina that champions Israeli control of land Palestinians claim for their own state and legal changes to tame the Supreme Court.
The ultraorthodox parties have already indicated that they will back Mr Netanyahu without question, and Yamina will be wooed to join the government with the promise of immediate annexation of large parts of the occupied West Bank, as outlined in a peace plan unveiled by Donald Trump without consulting Palestinian authorities.