Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main rival on Monday signed an agreement to form an “emergency” coalition government, their parties said in a joint statement.
The agreement between Netanyahu’s Likud and former blue and white military leaders of Benny Gantz ends months of political paralysis and avoids what would have been a fourth consecutive election in just over a year.
The terms of the agreement were not announced immediately. But Israeli media said it had called for a three-year period with Netanyahu serving as prime minister for the first half, and Gantz taking the job for the second half.
After last March 2 vote deadlocked, Netanyahu and former military chief Benny Gantz agreed late last month to try to form a unity government due to the emerging coronavirus crisis . Talks have dragged on and have been repeatedly blocked since then, apparently due to Netanyahu’s personal legal problems, raising fears that the collapse of an agreement will force the country to hold new elections.
Although Netanyahu failed several times in the last election, the coalition agreement returns the longtime leader to the post of prime minister, defying critics who predicted his downfall and restoring his reputation as a political wizard.
The deal likely required a major compromise on the part of the two men. In three fierce campaigns in the past year, Gantz and his blue and white party have vowed never to serve in a government under Netanyahu as long as he faces a multitude of corruption charges. Netanyahu, meanwhile, would likely be forced to step down and allow Gantz to serve as prime minister for part of the time, if the coalition manages to survive long enough.
Negotiations between the two leaders have largely revolved around the Netanyahu corruption trial which is set to open next month. The main sticking points included the Prime Minister’s request to have more say over judicial appointments, which could play a role if his case eventually reached the Supreme Court.
Last month’s elections, like the campaigns of last September and April, ended without a clear winner. But with a slight majority of lawmakers approving it, Gantz received the first blow to build a coalition government.
The glue holding Gantz’s various supporters was their shared animosity towards Netanyahu. The Leader of the Opposition began to move forward with legislation that would have disqualified Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has been charged, in the future.
But with the worsening virus crisis and the crumbling of his own fragile alliance, Gantz turned back at the end of last month and accepted an offer from Netanyahu to pursue a joint government to deal with the pandemic. . The move drew fierce criticism from Gantz supporters and tore apart its blue and white alliance, leaving it a faction about half its original size.
Negotiations continued even after the time allotted for Gantz to build a coalition last week, with the president now giving the Knesset until May 7 to select a candidate for prime minister. If a majority of lawmakers do not choose a candidate, the Knesset would be automatically dissolved, calling for new elections.
Protests against accusations of corruption
On Sunday evening, several thousand protesters, including Gantz’s former political partner Yair Lapid, gathered in Tel Aviv to protest the government’s expected deal. Protesters accused Netanyahu of using the coronavirus crisis to protect themselves from prosecution and accused Gantz of abandoning his promises of central campaigning.
“You are not fighting corruption from the inside. If you are inside, you are part of it,” said Lapid.
Netanyahu is awaiting trial for accepting bribes, breach of trust and fraud. He has denied any wrongdoing and presents himself as a victim of a media and judicial witch hunt. Citing the coronavirus crisis, the hand-picked justice minister from Netanyahu has already delayed the trial by two months by shutting down most of the justice system.
Israel has identified more than 13,000 cases of coronavirus, with 172 deaths. As the country began to ease some of its health restrictions this week, hundreds of thousands of people are unemployed and the economy has stalled.
There has also been growing criticism of Netanyahu’s approach to repelling the virus, with accusations that he has set aside democratic standards in the name of fighting the virus. The government has also been criticized for being slow to compensate workers and businesses affected by the crisis.