Israel heads for unity government as Netanyahu rival Gantz puts coronavirus over politics

Blue and White Party Leader Benny Gantz speaks during a nomination ceremony on October 23, 2019 in Jerusalem, Israel.

Amir Levy | Getty Images

Israel’s leading opposition candidate, Benny Gantz, has agreed to form a unity government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ending a political deadlock that forced three elections in less than a year.

The unexpected announcement sent shockwaves through Gantz’s Blue and White party over the weekend, and comes after he warned former allies in the party that leading Israel into a fourth round of elections was not an option. Citing the coronavirus outbreak, he asked leaders to put “personal scores aside.” 

On Monday, the government announced that the 70-year-old Netanyahu has gone into self-quarantine after an aide tested positive for the coronavirus. He and his close advisers will remain in quarantine until cleared by a doctor.

A ‘betrayal’ for much of Israel’s opposition

Gantz, 60, a former general and Israel Defense Forces chief, had previously vowed he would never enter into a unity government with the rightist Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who faces three criminal indictments on corruption charges. The move toward a coalition was seen as a betrayal by many within Blue and White, ultimately leading to an amicable disintegration into four parties and two factions.

“The coronavirus pandemic appears to be accomplishing something that three elections couldn’t — it’s forcing Israel’s deeply divided leaders to put the health and safety of the nation ahead of their own political fortunes,” Israeli-American political analyst and author Joel Rosenberg told CNBC over the weekend.

Under the agreement, Netanyahu will lead the country for 18 months, then allow Gantz to take over as prime minister. President Donald Trump called Netanyahu on Friday to congratulate him on the fact that a government would be formed under his premiership. 

Israel has reported over 4,300 coronavirus cases, including 15 deaths. The country of nearly 9 million has put partial lockdown measures in place to stem the spread of the virus.

The ‘dawn of the post-Bibi era’?

Netanyahu, whose nickname is Bibi, will now serve his fifth term in office, but many have questioned if this is the end of the road.

“It is possible we are seeing the dawn of the post-Bibi era,” Rosenberg said.

For Netanyahu allies, Gantz’s announcement was a welcome one. Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, told CNBC “the biggest victor is the state of Israel, which now has a government capable of grappling with this monumental crisis.”

Israel’s latest elections in March left Gantz and Netanyahu in a standoff, after last year’s September and April votes failed to give the country a government. While no single party has ever won an election in Israel outright, the prime minister must control at least 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. 

On Sunday, Netanyahu met with Gantz and Blue and White official Gabi Ashkenazi in an effort to establish a national emergency government to deal with the coronavirus, according to a Gantz spokesperson.

Earlier this month, Gantz’s Blue and White party won 33 seats while Netanyahu’s Likud party won 36 seats, but neither party could form a majority coalition.

“I am more at peace today than ever.” Gantz said in a Facebook post to his former allies. “I am at peace because I did what my nation needs. These are unusual times. Israel is in a state of emergency. Hundreds of thousands of families are hunkering down in their homes. There is a real sense of emergency in the face of a health threat that is taking human life and in the face of the threat of economic devastation.”

Gantz, elected parliamentary speaker of the Knesset on Thursday, will serve in Netanyahu’s government as foreign minister with a reported rotation agreement. The power-sharing deal will see Gantz take over from Netanyahu in September 2021. 

“Netanyahu and Gantz both have a great deal riding on the success of this arrangement,” Avi Mayer, assistant executive director of the American Jewish Committee, told CNBC. “I believe they will do whatever it takes to make it work.”

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