Israel's Netanyahu, Gantz agree emergency unity govt

AFP , Monday 20 Apr 2020

This combination of file pictures shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attending the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on December 9, 2018 AFP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached a historic deal Monday with one-time rival parliament speaker Benny Gantz to form an emergency unity government, ending the country's worst-ever political crisis.

The three-year agreement will allow Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving premier, to stay in office for 18 months as he stands trial over corruption charges. He denies wrongdoing.

Gantz will then take over as premier for another 18 months before Israel heads to a new round of elections.

Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, had squared off against Gantz in three inconclusive elections over the past year, but neither had secured enough support to form a viable governing coalition.

As the COVID-19 epidemic intensified following the last election on March 2, calls mounted for them to unite and offer the country a rare period of political calm as it battles an unprecedented health crisis.

"I promised the State of Israel a national emergency government that will act to save the lives and livelihoods of Israeli citizens," Netanyahu tweeted shortly after the deal was announced.

Gantz stressed that the deal had prevented "a fourth election."

"We'll fight coronavirus and we will take care of Israeli citizens," he tweeted.

The deal reportedly includes an agreement to move towards annexation of Jewish settlements and other territory in the occupied West Bank, actions that would defy international law.

Extending Israeli sovereignty over those areas had been approved in US President Donald Trump's controversial Middle East peace plan, condemned by the Palestinians and much of the international community.

- Judicial appointments -
President Reuven Rivlin mandated Gantz to form a government following the most recent vote.

But for a third time, he was unable to forge a coalition given the deep divisions within the anti-Netanyahu parliamentary bloc.

But in a surprise move, the former army chief was elected speaker last month.

He pledged to use that position to seek a deal with Netanyahu, saying the coronavirus pandemic and grinding political deadlock demanded tough compromises.

His decision led to the break-up of his centrist Blue and White alliance.

Many had speculated that Netanyahu would capitalise on Gantz's weakened position to take Israel to a fourth election in 18 months.

But Monday's deal averted such a poll.

The prime minister was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in January and some experts had argued he would seek to win a parliamentary majority to push through legislation protecting him from prosecution.

A major hold-up in the unity talks was over the appointment of senior justice officials, notably those who will oversee Netanyahu's trial.

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