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Israeli coalition deal keeps maverick Netanyahu in power

Tia Goldenberg
Associated Press

Jerusalem – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival announced Monday that they have forged a deal to form an “emergency” government, ending months of political paralysis.

The deal averts what would have been a fourth consecutive election in just over a year as the country fights its coronavirus outbreak.

Terms of the agreement weren’t immediately announced. But Israeli media said it called for a three-year period with Netanyahu serving as prime minister for the first half, and Gantz taking the job for the second half.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

After the last vote on March 2 ended in a stalemate, Netanyahu and former military chief Benny Gantz agreed late last month to try to form a unity government because of the burgeoning coronavirus crisis. The talks have dragged on and stalled several times since, reportedly over Netanyahu’s personal legal problems, sparking concern that the collapse of a deal would force the country into new elections.

Although Netanyahu repeatedly came up short in the last elections, the coalition agreement returns the long-serving leader to the premiership, defying critics who predicted his downfall and restoring his reputation as a political wizard.

The deal likely required major compromise by both men. During three bitter campaigns over the past year, Gantz and his Blue and White party vowed never to serve in a government under Netanyahu so long as he faces a slew of corruption charges. Netanyahu, meanwhile, would likely be forced to step aside and allow Gantz to serve as prime minister for part of the time, if the coalition manages to survive long enough.

Negotiations between the two leaders largely revolved around Netanyahu’s corruption trial set to start next month. Main sticking points included a demand by the prime minister to have more say on judicial appointments, which could play a role if his case eventually reaches the Supreme Court.

Last month’s election, just like the campaigns last September and April, ended with no clear winner. But with a slight majority of lawmakers endorsing him, Gantz was given the first shot at building a coalition government.

The glue holding together Gantz’s different backers was their shared animosity toward Netanyahu. The opposition leader had begun to move forward with legislation that would have disqualified the indicted Netanyahu from serving as prime minister in the future.

But with the virus crisis worsening, and his own shaky alliance fraying, Gantz made an about-face late last month and accepted an offer from Netanyahu to pursue a joint government to deal with the pandemic. The move drew heavy criticism from Gantz’s supporters and tore apart his Blue and White alliance, leaving him with a faction roughly half its original size.

Negotiations have continued even after Gantz’ allotted time to build a coalition ended last week, with the president now giving the Knesset until May 7 to select a candidate for prime minister. If a majority of legislators fails to choose a candidate, the Knesset would automatically be dissolved, triggering new elections.

On Sunday night, several thousand demonstrators, including Gantz’s former political partner Yair Lapid, gathered in Tel Aviv to protest the expected government deal. Protesters accused Netanyahu of using the coronavirus crisis to shield himself from prosecution and accused Gantz of abandoning his central campaign promises.

“You don’t fight corruption from within. If you’re inside, you’re part of it,” Lapid said.

Netanyahu is awaiting trial on charges of accepting bribes, breach of trust and fraud. He has denied any wrongdoing and portrays himself as a victim of a media and judicial witch hunt. Citing the coronavirus crisis, Netanyahu’s hand-picked justice minister has already delayed the trial by two months by shuttering most of the court system.

Israel has identified more than 13,000 cases of the coronavirus, with 172 deaths. While this week the country began relaxing some of its health restrictions, hundreds of thousands are out of work and the economy has come to a standstill.

There has also been growing criticism over Netanyahu’s approach to beating back the virus, with accusations that he has sidelined democratic norms in the name of fighting the virus. The government has also come under criticism for moving too slowly in compensating workers and businesses hit by the crisis.