Gantz elected Israel's parliament speaker in a surprise twist

The move keeps open the possibility of a “rotation” deal in which he and Netanyahu would take turns as PM

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz.

Israeli Blue and White party chairman 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 Gantz’s Blue and White party and the support of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud, Gantz was elected with 74 votes in the 120-member Knesset.

The move left many of Gantz's own political allies fuming over the smoothing of a path to partnership with a prime minister under criminal indictment. Yet, his move keeps open the possibility of a “rotation” deal in which he and Netanyahu would take turns as prime minister. Each has insisted on going first, following three inconclusive national elections in less than a year.

Previously, Gantz had ruled out serving with Netanyahu, citing the prime minister’s looming trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which he denies. But Likud had threatened to abandon unity efforts if Blue and White’s original candidate for Speaker, MK Meir Cohen - an opponent of a partnership with Netanyahu - was chosen in the newly sworn-in parliament. Mired in political deadlock, the prospects of Gantz forming an administration on his own had appeared slim. Then, Netanyahu has proposed a “national emergency” government with Gantz to help tackle the coronavirus crisis. Israel’s president, who enjoys wide public respect, had pressed them to join forces, with Israelis facing a possible national lockdown within days to try to lower infection rates.

 “Israel is facing a growing number of (coronavirus)infections and the number of victims is rising daily,” Gantz told parliament, accepting the speaker’s gavel.

“At the moment all options need to be on the table. It wouldn’t be responsible on my part not to consider any alternative,” he told Channel 12 news later that day.

In the interview, Gantz also said Israel needs a coalition to address two challenges facing the country: “to cope with the health, economic and social aspects of the coronavirus crisis and at the same time to preserve Israeli democracy.” He added that though parties opposed to Netanyahu won a majority of seats in the 2 March elections, he could not ignore the current circumstances in which Israel finds itself.

While saying he was willing to help Netanyahu and Israel deal with the crisis in any way possible, Gantz stressed “Israeli democracy is critical,” amid accusations from Blue and White that Likud was undermining the country’s democratic institutions under the cover of the virus.

“There is no option for anything else besides democracy and we need to be very careful not to approach the margins of dictatorship,” he said.

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