Netanyahu’s chief rival reverses, signals he’ll cut unity deal

Benny Gantz said he would serve in an emergency government led by rival Benjamin Netanyahu to help prevent a coronavirus crisis in Israel.

al-monitor Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz looks on after speaking to supporters following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's election at the party's headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 3, 2020.  Photo by REUTERS/Corinna Kern.

Mar 26, 2020

In a stunning turn of events, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's main rival, Benny Gantz, has signaled he would serve in an emergency Netanyahu-led government as the country battles the coronavirus.

On Thursday, Gantz was voted speaker of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, with the backing of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party and partial support from his own centrist Blue and White party. After the shocking resignation of ex-speaker Yuli Edelstein earlier this week, the former army chief put himself forward for the position, seemingly ending his hard-fought campaign for prime minister. 

"To exhaust the possibility of forming a national emergency government, I decided to put my candidacy forward for the position of speaker of the Knesset," Gantz told the Knesset after his election. "These are unusual times and they call for unusual decisions.”

“This is the time for responsible, committed, patriotic leadership. Let’s join hands and get Israel out of this crisis,” he added.

Neither side has confirmed a power-sharing agreement or a rotation deal in which the two leaders would alternate the premiership. But one possible arrangement reported in the Israeli media would see Gantz becoming prime minister in 18 months after first serving as Israel’s foreign or defense minister under Netanyahu.

Such a deal would bring an end to a yearlong political stalemate, in which three consecutive national elections left neither politician with enough support to form a governing coalition. Since the March 2 election, Gantz has resisted calls for a political partnership with Netanyahu, who is currently awaiting trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

News of a possible partnership has upended Gantz’s political alliance, and on Thursday evening his running mate Yair Lapid accused him of surrendering “without a fight.”

“We ran together because Benny Gantz looked me in the eye and said he would never sit in this bad government. I believed him,” he said at a news conference. 

Netanyahu and his supporters have argued that the 70-year-old is best qualified to lead the country amid its coronavirus outbreak, which has so far killed eight Israelis and infected at least 2,693.

Netanyahu’s corruption trial was postponed by more than two months amid coronavirus restrictions in the courts. He denies any wrongdoing.