By TIA GOLDENBERG
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 and averting what would have been a fourth consecutive election in just over a year.
Netanyahu and former military chief Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, signed the agreement after weeks of negotiations for what they termed a “national emergency” government meant to steer the country through the coronavirus outbreak.
The power-sharing agreement means that Netanyahu will almost certainly remain in office for the duration of his upcoming trial on corruption charges.
The deal calls for a three-year period, with Netanyahu serving as prime minister for the first half, and Gantz taking the job for the second half.
Gantz’s party will take control of a number of senior government ministries, including foreign affairs and defense, but Netanyahu’s party will gain influence over judicial appointments — a key demand of the prime minister as he prepares to go on trial.
“I promised the state of Israel a national emergency government that will work to save the lives and livelihoods of the citizens of Israel,” Netanyahu tweeted.
After an inconclusive election on March 2, Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to try to form a unity government because of the burgeoning coronavirus crisis. The talks dragged on and stalled several times, 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 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. After more than a decade as prime minister, Netanyahu agreed to step aside and allow Gantz to take the job later in their term, if the coalition manages to survive long enough.
“We prevented a fourth election,” Gantz tweeted. “We will protect democracy. We will battle corona and we will worry about all the citizens of Israel.”
While the government was ostensibly formed to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed over 170 Israelis and ravaged the economy, negotiations revolved largely 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 chosen first by the country’s figurehead president to try to build 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 continued even after Gantz’ allotted time to build a coalition ended last week. The Knesset, or parliament, had been given until May 7 to select a candidate for prime minister. Otherwise, it would automatically have been dissolved and triggered 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 had been desperate to remain in office throughout the trial, using his position to lash out at his enemies and rally public opposition to his prosecutors. With the exception of the prime minister, Israeli law requires public officials to resign if indicted.
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.