Netanyahu likely to survive as Gantz elected parliament speaker

The former military chief came the closest to deposing of country's longest-serving prime minister

(FILES) A file photo taken on March 07, 2020 shows the leader of Israel's Blue and White electoral alliance Benny Gantz arriving to deliver a statement in the central Israeli city of Ramat Gan. Israel's ex-military chief Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's main rival, submitted himself on March 26 as a candidate for speaker of parliament, a move that could lead to an emergency alliance between the two.  / AFP / Ahmad GHARABLI
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Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz was elected on Thursday as speaker of parliament in a surprise move that appeared to herald a political partnership that could keep Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in power.

With the partial backing of the centrist former general Mr Gantz's Blue and White party and the support of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud, Mr Gantz was elected with 74 votes in the 120-member Knesset. It could pave the way for a "rotation deal" in which Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz would take turns as prime minister, with Mr Gantz starting as foreign minister.

Talks to form a unity government were in progress between both parties after a March 2 inconclusive election and in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Israel's opposition leader Benny Gantz shocked the Israeli public on Thursday, provisionally agreeing to serve as foreign minister in government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the very man he has tried to dethrone in three successive elections.

The dramatic turn of events split the former military chief's Blue and White party over his decision, according to Israeli media reports, after he nominated himself as Israel's parliament speaker to keep unity government talks alive.

Yair Lapid, who was co-chair of the party with Mr Gantz, will now lead the opposition. Mr Netanyahu will rotate the premiership with Mr Gantz after his rotation ends in 2021, but Mr Gantz has been accused by his party colleagues of political suicide.

In three elections in less than a year, neither candidate was able to form a majority government, producing a stalemate and calls from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin for the pair to form a unity government.

It is a shock move that effectively keeps Mr Netanyahu in power as prime minister, a development that will help him to stave off his corruption troubles, for which he is set to stand trial.

The trial was scheduled to begin this month but was called off over the outbreak of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 1,000 Israelis.

The reports came as Israel's Supreme Court arranged for a vote for a parliamentary speaker to be held on Thursday in a showdown with an ally of Mr Netanyahu, a move that could have threatened the prime minister's long hold on power.

In what the court called an unprecedented challenge of its authority by a public official, current speaker Yuli Edelstein disobeyed its order to hold an election for the post – a vote he was expected to lose. Instead, the ally of the prime minister quit on Wednesday.

But Mr Gantz nominated himself as interim Knesset speaker on Thursday, in an attempt to allow coalition negotiations to continue. It was a deal struck in unity government talks with Mr Netanyahu's party.

Amid a deep political stalemate, no government has been formed to replace a caretaker administration. But the main opposition party, centrist Blue and White led by former general Mr Gantz, controlled a slim majority of 61 of parliament's 120 seats.

For Mr Gantz, time was of the essence in choosing a new speaker from Blue and White who could help put the legislation into motion to block Mr Netanyahu's quest for a fourth consecutive term. But he chose himself in siding with Mr Netanyahu.

Under law, Mr Gantz could have asked for a two-week extension to form his own government but after three inconclusive national elections in less than a year, he was unlikely to get one.

Mr Edelstein cited the coronavirus crisis and pursuit of Mr Netanyahu's call for a "national emergency government" with Mr Gantz as valid reasons for postponing the election for speaker in the newly sworn-in parliament.

He said he was acting as a matter of conscience.

In a decision released on Thursday, Chief Justice Esther Hayut said Mr Edelstein's disobedience of the rule of law set a bad example for ordinary Israelis faced with restrictions on their movement to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Mr Netanyahu, who has denied charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, made no comment on the controversy. But some Likud members accused the court of undermining democracy in forcing a Knesset vote.