Israel's Netanyahu, Gantz see 'significant progress' toward unity govt

by Jonah MANDEL
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Israel's indicted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz have agreed on a unity government, after three divisive elections in less than a year

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his erstwhile rival Benny Gantz on Sunday announced "significant progress" in talks towards forming an emergency unity government amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Gantz, whose now fractured centrist Blue and White alliance had positioned itself as the alternative to Netanyahu in three inconclusive elections over the past year, was elected parliament speaker Thursday.

The two men held talks through Saturday night "aimed at establishing a national emergency government to deal with the corona crisis and the additional challenges facing the State of Israel", said a joint statement from Blue and White and Netanyahu's Likud party.

"Significant progress was made during the meeting," it added. "During the course of the day, an additional meeting will be held in order to come to a finalised agreement."

Both leaders have previously voiced support for a unity government to help combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Gantz was tasked with forming a government following March 2 elections -- a task he had already been unable to complete after two national polls last year -- and there was no guarantee he would succeed this time, given rifts within the anti-Netanyahu bloc.

The former chief of Israel's army, Gantz has subsequently tempered his long-time opposition to working with Netanyahu, due to the dangers presented by the coronavirus.

But that move has provoked an implosion of the anti-Netanyahu block Gantz had led.

A parliamentary committee on Sunday afternoon formalised Blue and White's fracture, with Gantz's faction keeping that name.

The dissidents were rebranded as Yesh Atid-Telem, incorporating the Yair Lapid and Moshe Yaalon parties.

"We will keep a watchful eye over the work of this government and create a real alternative for the State of Israel," the new grouping said in a statement after the split.

- 'What my nation needs'-

Netanyahu, in office since 2009, was in January charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, but the start of his trial has been delayed by the pandemic.

He denies the charges.

The divided anti-Netanyahu forces, who held a narrow majority in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, on Wednesday forced the ouster of speaker Yuli Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu's Likud party.

Gantz then put himself forward as speaker, triggering the break-up of Blue and White, with Telem and Yesh Atid accusing Gantz of surrendering "without a fight" to Netanyahu.

On Friday, Gantz justified his move as being "what my nation needs" given the coronavirus pandemic.

"I won't be the one who categorically refuses to step in and pull my weight in a state of emergency," he wrote on Facebook.

There were no official details of the likely makeup of a future government, but Netanyahu has in past weeks proposed 18-month premiership terms -- with him taking the first, to be followed by Gantz.

Reports said that at least three people who were not originally part of Gantz's party would be seeking to join him in Netanyahu's coalition.

Spokespeople for Blue and White and the Likud would not provide any details on what any agreement to form a government might entail.

One of the main questions centred on who takes over as justice minister, replacing the current Netanyahu loyalist now overseeing the legal proceedings against the prime minister.

Former army chief Benny Gantz has agreed to join an 'emergency unity government' with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

A unity government would aim to combat the coronavirus pandemic, which has so far seen over 3,800 Israelis infected and claimed 12 lives in the country