Israel: Gantz put in place as speaker before Netanyahu faces trial

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main rival has reportedly agreed to join a unity government, ending a year of political deadlock. Benny Gantz’s surprise election as speaker of parliament has paved the way for the deal. He will stay in the role until he is named foreign minister, according to Israeli media reports, and will then take over the premiership in September 2021. Mr Gantz had refused to serve under Netanyahu because he is facing trial; the Israeli leader was formally charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in January

Benny Gantz has been put in place as speaker

Netanyahu’s Likud party won the most seats in this month’s general election – the third in less than a year – but lawmakers have strongly recommended that Benny Gantz be given the mandate to form a government. The rivals were subsequently urged to put politics aside to fight the new coronavirus pandemic, which has infected 2,600 people in Israel and claimed eight lives.

Benny Gantz’s Blue and White alliance was forged as the anti-Netanyahu party. It pledged to never sit in a government with a prime minister facing criminal charges, as Mr Netanyahu now does. But on Thursday night, after a year-long political crisis and three elections, Mr Gantz’s bloc had fallen apart. Its hopes of forming a government gone and its pledge not to sit with Mr Netanyahu now shattered.

Mr Gantz, without a clear path to a coalition on his own terms and under pressure due to the coronavirus outbreak, nominated himself and was elected speaker of the Knesset. He gained the backing of a majority of MPs after pledging to join an “emergency” unity government. The deal will reportedly see Netanyahu remain as prime minister with Gantz taking over late next year. In the meantime, the incumbent leader will have a corruption trial to face.

Mr Gantz defended himself in a speech after he was elected speaker with the support of Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc, saying it was “the right thing to do at this time”.

“These are not normal times and they call for unusual decisions,” he noted. “Therefore… I intend to examine and advance in every way the establishment of an emergency national unity government.”  Netanyahu’s Court hearing has  been postponed until at least 24 May because of the coronavirus outbreak. The prime minister is alleged to have accepted gifts from wealthy businessmen and dispensed favours to try to get more positive press coverage. He has denied any wrongdoing.

This edited article by Tom Bateman, Middle East correspondent for the BBC

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