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Netanyahu rival Benny Gantz chosen to form new Israeli government

Benny Gantz
(Sebastian Scheiner / Associated Press)

Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz will be given the first opportunity to form a new government after an inconclusive national election this month, the country’s president said Sunday, raising questions about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political future.

The decision by President Reuven Rivlin was announced by his office after he consulted with leaders of all the parties elected to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. He will formally designate Gantz with the task Monday and give him a month to cobble together a governing coalition.

The political wrangling comes at a sensitive time. Netanyahu has been leading the country as it confronts the growing coronavirus threat, with more 250 cases diagnosed there and the number quickly rising. Netanyahu also faces serious legal troubles as he prepares to go on trial to face corruption charges.

Netanyahu’s Likud emerged as the largest party in the March 2 election, Israel’s third in less than a year. But with his smaller religious and nationalist allies, he received the support of only 58 lawmakers during Sunday’s consultations, leaving his right-wing bloc three seats short of the required majority in parliament.

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Gantz’s Blue and White received the support of parties representing 61 seats, a slim majority. However, those parties are also divided, and it is not clear whether Gantz will succeed in putting together a coalition. One lawmaker refused to endorse either side.

Given the likelihood of continued deadlock, Rivlin late Sunday summoned both Netanyahu and Gantz to an emergency meeting, where the men pledged to explore a unity government.

In a joint statement, both parties thanked Rivlin and said their leaders “agreed for the respective negotiation teams to meet soon.”

Rivlin had earlier called for a power-sharing unity government to lead the country through its many crises. Israel has gone through three inconclusive elections in the last year, leaving it with a caretaker government as it confronts a host of challenges, including the coronavirus battle. If the two rivals cannot reach a unity deal, the country could find itself in a fourth consecutive election campaign.

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“Anyone who has watched the news in recent days understands that this is a time of trial, and that these are not regular consultations,” Rivlin said earlier Sunday. “We must now deal with forming a government as soon as possible ... at this complex time.”

Rivlin’s duties are largely ceremonial. But he is responsible for designating the candidate he thinks has the best chance of forming a government by securing a parliamentary majority.

That usually goes to the leader of the largest party, in this case Netanyahu. But after a slim majority endorsed Gantz on Sunday, Rivlin appeared to have little choice.

Gantz will face a difficult task securing a governing coalition.

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The parties that endorsed him have little in common beyond their shared antipathy toward Netanyahu, who has led the country for the last 11 years. They include the predominantly Arab Joint List and the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu.

Yisrael Beitenu’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman, and two members of Gantz’s own Blue and White party have said they would oppose a government that relies on support from the Joint List. Lieberman told the president that he supports Gantz, but also called for the formation of an “emergency” unity government to deal with the coronavirus threat.

Netanyahu, in his caretaker role, has invited Gantz to join him in an emergency government. Gantz has left the door open to such an arrangement, but also dismissed the offers as insincere.

Although Gantz’s chances of forming a new government appear slim, receiving the “mandate” from Rivlin could strengthen his position in unity talks with Netanyahu, said Yochanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.

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During the transition period, Blue and White is expected to name one of its members as speaker of the Knesset and to pass legislation that would prevent an indicted politician from forming a new government. That legislation would impede Netanyahu’s chances of victory if the country is forced into a fourth election and push him toward compromise.

“Both sides will say that they support unity. You only have one minor question: Who goes first and for how long and so on?” said Plesner.

Netanyahu formally extended an offer Sunday to Gantz to join a government aimed at halting the spread of the virus, suggesting two frameworks, including one that would see an alternating leadership between them over the course of four years.

Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party seems to consider the outreach yet another ruse after what has been an extremely acrimonious campaign that included unfounded smears against Gantz.

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