Netanyahu and Gantz agree to form unity Israeli government

By Oliver Holmes

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his main rival, Benny Gantz, have agreed to form a national unity government, ending a year-long political crisis that has seen the country hold three back-to-back elections.

A copy of the power-sharing agreement said Netanyahu, currently the interim leader, would remain in the role for 18 months before handing over to Gantz, a former army chief, for the remainder of a three-year term.

The announcement was a stunning turnaround for Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, who appeared to be flagging in recent weeks under the strain of three damning corruption indictments and mediocre election performance.

He is now likely to remain in office throughout his upcoming corruption trial and also gain significant influence over judicial appointments. Meanwhile, Gantz’s Blue and White will take half of all ministries, including defence and foreign affairs.

The text also hinted at the potential annexation of parts of the Palestinian territories this summer, stating that Netanyahu could bring Donald Trump’s “vision for peace” to a government vote from 1 July. The US plan, pre-emptively rejected by Palestinian leaders, gives Israel full military control over Palestinians, much of their land and all of Jerusalem and Israeli settlements.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz support Trump’s plan. Mohammad Shtayyeh, the Palestinian prime minister, warned that the formation of what he called “an Israeli annexation government” would dismantle the rights of the people of Palestine.

Minutes after Monday’s power-sharing agreement was announced, Netanyahu tweeted a photo of the Israeli flag. Gantz said on Twitter that he had prevented a fourth round of elections, the likely outcome if no deal was reached.

It could take several days to pass legislation needed to formalise the agreement before the new government can be inaugurated.

Many had expected the stalemate to hold following three inconclusive elections that produced similar results and with little progress made between the two rivals during months of talks. Without a fully functioning government, Israel has been unable to pass a budget.

Both politicians have been unable to forge majority coalitions on their own. Gantz was the latest to be tasked with forming a government after gathering a loose coalition of anti-Netanyahu Knesset members to back his candidacy, but he failed to clinch a majority last week.

Outbreaks of the coronavirus, which has put the country under lockdown, have added urgency to the need to break the deadlock.

Last month, it was Gantz who appeared to back down on his longstanding demand that Netanyahu must leave power.

The opposition leader went against his own party, Blue and White, and nominated himself as speaker of Israel’s parliament.

Blue and White had planned to elect a different speaker, and push through legislation to end Netanyahu’s historic political career through term limits and bans on prime ministers serving while under indictment.

But Gantz nominated himself with the support of Netanyahu and his allies, with the apparent aim of protecting the prime minister from such legislation to keep the possibility of a unity government alive.

In uproar, Blue and White swiftly disintegrated, amid allegations Gantz had broke his one main promise since he began his short career in politics less than two years ago: to oust Netanyahu.

Gantz said at the time that he was “at peace” with his decision.

“This is the time for leaders to choose what is right and put the lingering issues and personal scores aside,” he said, adding he would not “drag Israel to elections at this time of emergency – which will be with us for a long time, and whose repercussions are going to be long-term.”

Under the unity deal signed on Monday, the two politicians will head a specific “coronavirus cabinet” to deal with the pandemic.