Former Israeli military chief Benny Gantz was appointed on Monday to try to form a government, but further talks were expected with his bitter rival, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on an emergency alliance to fight the coronavirus.
Gantz, leader of the blue and white centrist party, called for “unity” and urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to join him as Israel seeks to end a crippling political stalemate after three inconclusive elections in less than ‘a year.
“We must not have a fourth election,” said Gantz, after being officially appointed to try to form an administration by President Reuven Rivlin.
“I will do everything to form in as few days as possible a national, patriotic and broad government”.
Gantz, 60, won recommendations from 61 lawmakers on Sunday, a slim majority like the Knesset, which has 120 members.
His supporters did not include Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud, but Rivlin urged the two men to work together in an emergency unit government to avoid a national political vacuum in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The rapid formation of a government may require interim arrangements for the coming months,” Rivlin said on Monday.
Squaring the circle
Gantz’s path to a longer-term stable coalition is difficult given the deep divisions within the factions that supported him, which include the predominantly Arab joint list and the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu.
Rivlin officially gave Gantz 28 days to try to form a government, a task that proved impossible for any candidate following the two elections last year.
Netanyahu – the longest-serving Israeli prime minister and the first to be charged with a transplant – insisted that voters in the March 2 election had given him a mandate to continue as prime minister.
The vote saw Likud get the most seats but, with its allies from religious parties, it lost three seats compared to the majority.
Gantz has a “hollow mandate,” wrote political columnist Sima Kadmon in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, referring to possibly insurmountable divisions within the anti-Netanyahu camp.
Rivlin has made it clear that he wants a government soon to be put in place to help Israel fend off the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said that political leaders have a duty to form a government in “national and international emergency”.
“The fourth election is not possible,” added Rivlin, who is largely a ceremonial figure.
Rivlin summoned Gantz and Netanyahu on Sunday for an “urgent conversation”, which ended without agreement, but Likud and Blue and White said talks would continue.
But the prospects for the two men to reconcile may be distant, especially since the mutual acrimony has intensified in recent days.
A new Knesset will also be sworn in later Monday during a demolition ceremony due to a coronavirus.
Coalition against coronaviruses?
Writing in the left-wing Haaretz, columnist Raviv Drucker said the pandemic “could be the miracle of our political establishment”, forcing a compromise that has proven elusive in the past year of political stalemate.
Israel has 255 confirmed cases of coronavirus with no deaths but tens of thousands under house quarantine.
Authorities have prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people and ordered the closure of schools, universities, restaurants and cafes, among other measures.
Netanyahu, 70, proposed a six-month unity government on Sunday that he would lead to manage the response to the pandemic.
He also proposed a four-year deal that would see the two leaders also split the post of prime minister.
“Gantz does not believe a single word of Netanyahu,” wrote columnist Nahum Barnea in Yediot Aharonot, arguing against the prospect of an alliance.
But, Barnea added, the coronavirus could prove to be “the key to a deal.”
Gantz has always refused to serve in a government led by a person facing criminal charges.
Netanyahu was formally charged in January with corruption, fraud and breach of trust.
He denies any wrongdoing.
His trial was scheduled to start on Tuesday, but the Jerusalem district court postponed it to May 24, accusing the pandemic.
Prime Minister’s rivals cried out over the scandal, accusing him of using the coronavirus public health crisis to push his long day in court.