Israel's ex-army chief Gantz gets shot at forming government


Israel's ex-military chief Benny Gantz won recommendations on Sunday from a thin majority of lawmakers to form a coalition government after almost a year of political paralysis in Israel. (Photo: AFP)

Israel's ex-military chief Benny Gantz was nominated Monday to try to form a government but further talks were expected with his bitter rival, premier Benjamin Netanyahu, on an emergency alliance to fight coronavirus.

Gantz, who heads the centrist Blue and White 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," Gantz said, after he was formally nominated to attempt to form an administration by President Reuven Rivlin.

"I'll do everything to form in as few days as possible a national, patriotic and broad government."

Gantz, 60, won recommendations on Sunday from 61 lawmakers, a razor thin majority in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament.

His backers did not include Netanyahu's right-wing Likud, but Rivlin has urged the two men to work together in an emergency unity government, in order to avoid a national policy vacuum in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

"It is possible that forming a government quickly will require interim arrangements for the coming months", Rivlin said Monday.

Squaring the circle 

Gantz's path to a longer-term stable coalition is difficult given the deep divisions within the factions that backed him, which include the mainly Arab Joint List and the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu.

Rivlin officially granted Gantz 28 days to try to form a government, a task which proved impossible for any candidate following the two elections last year.

Netanyahu -- Israel's longest-serving premier and the first ever to be indicted in office, on graft charges -- has insisted that voters in the March 2 election gave him a mandate to continue as prime minister.

The vote saw Likud secure the most seats but, along with its religious party allies, it fell three seats short of a majority.

Gantz has a "hollow mandate," political columnist Sima Kadmon wrote in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, referring to the possibly insurmountable divisions within the anti-Netanyahu camp.

Rivlin has made clear he wants a government in place soon to help Israel beat back the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said political leaders had a duty to form a government amid "the national and international emergency."

"Fourth elections are not a possibility," 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 the talks would continue.

But prospects for the two men coming to terms may be remote, especially as mutual acrimony has ramped up in recent days.

A new Knesset will also be sworn in later Monday in a stripped-down ceremony due to coronavirus.

Coronavirus coalition? 

Writing in the left-wing Haaretz newspaper, columnist Raviv Drucker said the pandemic "could be our political establishment's miracle," forcing a compromise that has proved elusive over the past year of political deadlock.

Israel has 255 confirmed cases of coronavirus with no fatalities but tens of thousands in home-quarantine.

Authorities have banned gatherings of more than 10 people and ordered schools, universities, restaurants and cafes to close, among other measures.

Netanyahu, 70, on Sunday proposed a six-month unity government that he would lead to manage the response to the pandemic.

He also offered a four-year arrangement that would see the two leaders equally split the job of prime minister.

"Gantz doesn't believe a single word Netanyahu says," columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in Yediot Aharonot, arguing against the prospects of an alliance.

But, Barnea added, coronavirus could prove "key to a deal".

Gantz has consistently refused to serve in any government led by someone facing criminal charges.

Netanyahu was in January formally charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

He denies wrongdoing.

His trial had been due to open on Tuesday, but Jerusalem's District Court postponed it to May 24, blaming the pandemic.

The prime minister's rivals cried foul, accusing him of using the coronavirus public health crisis to push back his long-anticipated day in court.