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Israel’s Political Scene Sees Sudden, Startling Realignment

Centrist leader Benny Gantz opens door to coalition with right-wing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – who could step aside in 18 months

In a turn of developments that could spell an end to nearly 18 months of political gridlock in Jerusalem, centrist leader Benny Gantz seems on the verge of joining a unity government led – for now – by right-wing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

On Thursday, Gantz, with little warning, took his Israel Resilience party out of the middle-of-the-road Blue and White alliance, where it had opposed Netanyahu and his Likud party together with the somewhat dovish Yesh Atid and the right-wing Telem party.

Yesh Atid is headed by former finance minister Yair Lapid, and Telem by ex-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, like Gantz a former military chief of staff.

Both Lapid and Ya’alon were vehemently opposed to sitting in a government led by Netanyahu, who is under indictment in three separate cases of alleged corruption. The Likud leader’s trial, due to begin two weeks ago, was delayed until May as the judiciary was placed on an emergency footing due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Indeed, Netanyahu has over the past weeks repeatedly courted Gantz to join forces in order to tackle the health crisis. Israeli authorities have reported at least 2,666 cases of COVID-19 – the illness caused by the pathogen – with eight fatalities.

The terms of the prospective deal would see Gantz – who on Thursday was sworn in as interim speaker of the Knesset, or parliament – serve as foreign minister and then take over the reins from Netanyahu midway through a three-year term.

Speaking in the Knesset immediately after being sworn in as speaker, Gantz described his decision as “important” for the nation, whose democracy, he said, was “not up for negotiation.” He argued that Israel had for over a year been governed by a transitional government that lacked a public mandate.

The apparent breakthrough comes after inconclusive national elections last April and September. Elections were held again on March 2, though with little change in the outcome.

“We’ve gone through repeated elections that have taken billions of shekels from the health, education and defense systems,” he said. “Alongside this, deep hatred has blossomed, with division the greatest existential threat to Israel.”

According to Israel’s Channel 12, the emerging coalition would likely consist of 78 or 79 lawmakers from Likud, Israel Resilience, the right-wing Yamina party, the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, and even dovish Labor.

Gantz’s ally in Israel Resilience, Gabi Ashkenazi – another former military chief of staff – would hold the defense portfolio, whereas the Likud would retain control over the Finance Ministry. It would also regain the post of Knesset speaker when Gantz takes over from Netanyahu.

Notably, this would leave Israel Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman – who for months had been considered the country’s political kingmaker – in the opposition.

Thursday’s bombshell comes on the backdrop of a whirlwind Wednesday, when Likud lawmaker Yuli Edelstein unexpectedly announced that he was resigning as Knesset speaker rather than uphold a Supreme Court ruling, setting off a political and legal firestorm.

The court had ordered Edelstein – who last week shuttered the plenum and then, following its brief reconvening, did so again on Wednesday – to allow a vote to take place that would undoubtedly have replaced him with a Blue and White legislator.

The justices thereafter ordered that the Knesset be reopened on Thursday, leading to the day’s dramatic events.

Though Gantz has held the official mandate to form the next government, he did not have a clear path to doing so.

The prospect of him leading a minority government backed from the outside by the primarily Arab Joint List had fizzled because two Blue and White lawmakers nixed the idea, effectively wiping out a razor-thin and highly fragile voting bloc of 61 in the 120-member Knesset.