Benjamin Netanyahu rival Benny Gantz chosen to form new Israeli government

Blue and White leader appears to have a slim majority but his backers are divided

FILE PHOTO: Leader of Blue and White party, Benny Gantz looks on after voting at a polling station in Israel's national election in Rosh Ha'ayin, Israel March 2, 2020. REUTERS/Nir Elias/File Photo
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Israel’s president tasked centrist leader Benny Gantz with forming a government on Monday, sidelining the incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu after a tumultuous few days in politics overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic.

President Reuven Rivlin urged politicians to act "in this hour of crisis" as he formally nominated Mr Gantz for the premiership, during a ceremony at the presidential residence in Jerusalem.

“The enormity of this moment and the dimensions of the challenges we face require forming a government,” the president said, following the country’s third election in less than a year.

Coronavirus fears fuel the Israeli election

Coronavirus fears fuel the Israeli election

Tasking Mr Gantz with forming a government follows the recommendation of 61 MPs, as various factions united against the prime minister whose right-wing and religious bloc secured 58.

The Blue and White chairman vowed to "do everything to form a government" which will "serve all of Israel's citizens".

"I will lead the government in healing Israeli society from the effects of the coronavirus epidemic, as well as from the epidemic of divisiveness and hate," Mr Gantz said at the ceremony.

Mr Gantz’s nomination to form an administration marks a dramatic turnaround since the March 2 election, in which Mr Netanyahu appeared the frontrunner after his Likud party won 36 seats compared to the 33 picked up by his rival’s Blue and White party.

Key to Mr Gantz gaining the necessary 61 seats was the unanimous support of the Arab-led Joint List, whose 15 elected members backed the former army chief despite Blue and White saying they would not be included in the cabinet.

The Joint List would in theory vote in favour of a minority government led by Mr Gantz in exchange for enacting legislation to improve the lives of Arab Israelis, who make up about 20 per cent of the population.

Such an arrangement would be unprecedented in Israeli politics as Arab MPs have largely been excluded from the upper echelons of decision-making, but significant hurdles remain.

The Joint List legislators stand in an unhappy alliance with the seven MPs from Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, sharing almost no common ground beyond their desire to oust Mr Netanyahu.

Two Blue and White members, Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, have already voiced their opposition to a minority government supported by the Joint List.

Mr Gantz now has 28 days to bring them into line while cobbling together a cabinet from his array of backers, including a handful of left-wing politicians, all while the country grapples with coronavirus.

Like other countries in the region, Israel has imposed stringent measures at its borders and within the country to contain the virus, including closing all schools and many businesses while limiting gatherings to 10 people.

Emergency steps taken by the courts have seen Mr Netanyahu’s corruption trial, due to start on Tuesday, postponed until 24 May.

The outbreak of coronavirus also led the Likud leader to push for a six-month emergency government with himself at the helm, dividing ministerial posts equally between Likud and Blue and White.

While initially open to discussing an emergency administration, Mr Gantz on Sunday accused Mr Netanyahu of trying to “manipulate the public” and speaking to the media rather than send a negotiating team to discuss the proposal.

“When you get serious, we can talk,” he said.

The president, however, suggested the proposal should remain on the table as Israel’s coronavirus cases topped 250. “It is possible that forming a government quickly will require interim arrangements for the coming months,” he said on Monday.

While Mr Gantz and Mr Netanyahu have agreed their negotiating teams would meet, opposition politicians are seeking a path through parliament to end the sitting prime minister’s career.

The Blue and White bloc has said it will table legislation prohibiting a politician who is under indictment from forming a government, barring Mr Netanyahu from the premiership.

But it is unclear how quickly they can get a draft law into parliament, as a Knesset spokesman told The National officials have not yet decided how to convene parliament with the coronavirus restrictions in place.

MPs were being sworn in before the president on Monday just three at a time, speaking briefly inside an echoing chamber, in line with the restrictions imposed on gatherings.

People in white protective suits and masks had roamed through parliament on Sunday spraying disinfectant, readying the Knesset for politics under a pandemic.