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Netanyahu's main rival voted in as Knesset speaker, paving way for unity government

Benny Gantz's appointment leaves the door open to a unity government between his centrist Blue and White party and Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party.
Image: Benny Gantz
Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, faces opposition from within his own ranks after being elected speaker. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP - Getty Images

Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief political rival, was voted in as the speaker of Israel's parliament on Thursday, paving the way for an emergency unity government to be formed.

"To exhaust the possibility of forming a national emergency government, I decided to put my candidacy forward for the position of speaker of the Knesset," Gantz explained after the vote. "These are unusual times and they call for unusual decisions."

Gantz’s appointment leaves the door open for his centrist Blue and White party to form a coalition government with Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

However, his decision to nominate himself as speaker appears to have cost him the unity of the Blue and White party, which has come up short in taking power in three inconclusive elections in less than a year.

The latest election held on March 2 saw neither Likud nor Blue and White capturing enough seats to form a majority government, even with the backing of smaller parties.

Israeli media reported Thursday that Blue and White’s co-leaders Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon filed a request to split from the rest of the party in the Knesset moments before the vote on Gantz’s nomination.

Blue and White had intended to nominate another lawmaker, who is part of a different faction of the party, and to use the position to push for legislation that would prevent an indicted lawmaker from becoming prime minister. In November, Netanyahu was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Likud hit back by saying that if Blue and White pursued this approach it would put an end to any discussions to form a unity government between the two camps — a move that could see Israel dragged into a fourth election.

The political crisis in Israel has persisted even as the country tackles the outbreak of the global coronavirus. The Israeli health ministry confirmed Thursday that more than 2,600 patients were being treated for COVID-19, and so far it has registered eight deaths.

The stakes are particularly high for Netanyahu, who was to go on trial on corruption charges this month but managed to postpone his court date due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum three-year term for fraud and breach of trust, according to legal experts. He has denied any wrongdoing and said he is the victim of a "witch hunt."