Netanyahu and Gantz move closer to unity government in surprise twist
A combination picture shows Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 23, 2019 and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Kiryat Malachi, Israel on March 1, 2020. (REUTERS File Photo)
JERUSALEM, March 26 (Reuters): A surprise maneouvre on Thursday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's main rival, Benny Gantz, appeared to herald a political partnership that could keep the long-ruling Israeli leader in power.
With the partial backing of his Blue and White party and the support of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud, Gantz was set to be elected Speaker of Parliament within hours.
The surprise twist in 48 hours of political drama in Israel left Blue and White in disarray. But it could pave the way for a "rotation deal" in which Netanyahu and Gantz would take turns as prime minister. Each has insisted on going first.
Likud had warned Gantz - who had ruled out such a deal, citing Netanyahu's indictment on corruption charges he denies - that it would abandon efforts to form a unity government if Blue and White's original candidate for the speaker's post, an opponent of the partnership, was chosen.
By putting himself up for the office, Gantz kept alive the possibility of joining forces with Netanyahu in a proposed rotating premiership.
Mired in political deadlock, Israel has held three inconclusive elections in less than a year, and prospects of Gantz forming a government on his own had appeared slim.
Netanyahu has proposed a "national emergency" administration with Gantz to help battle the coronavirus crisis.
Israel's president, who enjoys wide public respect, had pressed both men to join forces to battle the coronavirus crisis, with Israelis facing a possible national lockdown within days to try to lower infection rates.
Yesh Atid, a faction within Blue and White, had ruled out any cooperation with Netanyahu. It boycotted the voting session for parliamentary speaker and signalled it would split from Blue and White.
Potential backers of a Gantz-led narrow government, the Joint List of Arab parties and the Labour-Meretz alliance, accused the former armed forces chief of selling out.
"Why did you do this, to be prime minister or simply a criminal's doormat," Labour-Meretz legislator Tamar Zandberg asked in an address to the legislature.
Gantz's party had appeared to receive a boost earlier in the day when the Supreme Court ordered that a vote for parliamentary speaker be held on Thursday in a showdown with a Netanyahu ally who currently holds the post.
The outgoing speaker, Yuli Edelstein, had opposed a vote now, saying more time was needed to complete unity efforts, and resigned on Wednesday after defying a court ruling to schedule the ballot.
His resignation goes into effect on Friday, and the court tasked veteran legislator Amir Peretz, from the opposition, to oversee the voting.
Blue and White had said it would pursue legislation to bar Netanyahu, as a criminal suspect, from forming a government. Edelstein's resignation was widely seen as removing a potential obstacle to the quick passage of such a law.
Instead, Gantz assuming the speaker's post suggested he had used the threat of legislation as a bargaining chip in behind-the-scenes unity negotiations with Likud. Netanyahu has denied any criminal wrongdoing.