Israel president taps Netanyahu rival to form government to fight coronavirus pandemic

Israel president taps Netanyahu rival to form government to fight coronavirus pandemic
Negotiations around forming a new government, likely an interim unity administration, will continue on Monday.
4 min read
16 March, 2020
Ex-military chief Benny Gantz heads the Blue and White political alliance [AFP]
Israel's president on Sunday asked former military chief Benny Gantz to form a government, calling for an end to a year-long political stalemate in order to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

Reuven Rivlin's announcement marked a setback for right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but did not necessarily spell the end of his tenure, the longest in Israeli history.  

Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White alliance, secured recommendations from 61 lawmakers in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament, on Sunday - some 13 days after Israel's third election within 12 months.

"Tomorrow, around midday, the president will assign the task of forming the government to [the] head of Kachol Lavan... Benny Gantz," Rivlin's office said in a statement Sunday, using the Hebrew term for the Blue and White alliance.

But there is no guarantee that the disparate forces who supported Gantz on Sunday will agree terms on a stable coalition, something that proved impossible following the two inconclusive elections last year.

Driven by the need to ensure a coherent policy response to the coronavirus pandemic, Rivlin appears to be simultaneously pursuing a stop-gap option - an interim unity administration involving both Gantz and Netanyahu.

He summoned the two rivals to a meeting on Sunday evening for an "urgent conversation", which ended without agreement, but Likud and Blue and White said in a joint-statement the talks will continue on Monday. 

The president emphasised the need to "intensify direct contacts... between the Likud and Kachol Lavan negotiating teams, and welcomed both sides' willingness to do so", according to a statement by his own office after Sunday night's initial meeting.

Endorsements from across the divide

On top of support from Blue and White and a smaller centre-left alliance, Gantz was also recommended by the mainly Arab Joint List and the secular, right-wing nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party.

Aside from being anti-Netanyahu, the Joint List and Yisrael Beiteinu have almost no common political ground. 

Netanyahu's alliance, seen as more cohesive, includes his right-wing Likud as well as its religious, nationalist ally Yemina and two ultra-Orthodox parties. 

Both Netanyahu and Gantz have voiced support for an interim unity government to tackle the spread of coronavirus. 

The premier had earlier on Sunday specifically proposed a six-month arrangement that he would lead. 

"We must unite forces and form a strong and stable government that will be able to pass a budget and make tough decisions," Netanyahu said.

But Gantz blasted the prime minister for floating that offer to the media, before discussing ideas in private negotiations. 

"Unlike you, I'll continue to back any correct government action without any political considerations," Gantz said.

"When you're serious, we'll talk," he added. 

Israel has 213 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with tens of thousands in home quarantine. Authorities last week ordered all travelers arriving in the country to self-isolate for 14 days.

Authorities have banned gatherings of more than 10 people and ordered schools, universities, restaurants and cafes to close, among other measures.

Trial postponed

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Netanyahu was in January formally charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, becoming the first Israeli premier ever indicted in office. 

Gantz has previously refused to serve in any government led by someone facing criminal charges, but that was before the Covid-19 crisis. 

Netanyahu's trial had been due to open on Tuesday, but Jerusalem's District Court said that given the severity of the global pandemic it had been instructed to hear "only urgent matters".

"We have decided to postpone the first hearing until May 24," the court said, referring to Netanyahu's trial. 

The premier is accused of a range of offences including receiving improper gifts and offering a media mogul lucrative regulatory changes in exchange for favourable coverage.

He denies wrongdoing.  

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