In a setback for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's president said Sunday he will give centrist retired army general Benny Gantz the first chance to try to form a new government following this month's inconclusive elections.
Gantz was tapped after a majority of 61 lawmakers in the 120-member Parliament told President Reuven Rivlin they support Gantz over Netanyahu. A coalition of Arab parties, including a staunchly Palestinian nationalist faction, decisively helped tip the scales by unanimously endorsing Gantz.
This does not mean Gantz will automatically become Israel's next prime minister, but it gives him 42 days to try to form a government. More immediately, it gives him the upper hand in Parliament, as his party considers advancing legislation barring Netanyahu from forming a new government due to a corruption indictment against him.
Netanyahu argues that the challenge of coronavirus means he should remain in office. In a tweet, he offered Gantz two options to break the political deadlock in Israel: joining a six-month emergency government with Netanyahu at the head, or a unity government that would allow Netanyahu to serve as prime minister for two more years before Gantz takes over.
מול מצב החירום העולמי והלאומי, אנחנו חייבים לאחד כוחות ולהקים ממשלה חזקה ויציבה שתוכל להעביר תקציב ולקבל החלטות קשות.— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) March 15, 2020
שבתי והעברתי הבוקר הצעה ליו״ר כחול לבן בני גנץ ולחבריו להצטרף לממשלת חירום לאומית בראשותי
Gantz could unseat Netanyahu by building a minority government dependent on Arab parties, but it would be an unstable coalition and would draw fierce opposition from the right-wing Netanyahu, who calls the Arab parties terror sympathizers.
"While Prime Minister Netanyahu is handling an unprecedented global and national crisis in the most responsible and measured way," Netanyahu's Likud party said in a statement, "Gantz is rushing to a minority government dependent on ... terror supporters instead of joining a national emergency government that will save lives."
About 20% of Israel's population comprise Palestinian Arab citizens inside the country's borders.
This month's inconclusive elections left Netanyahu's political future uncertain, but the coronavirus crisis offered some relief to Netanyahu on Sunday: his corruption trial was postponed due to emergency measures taken in response to coronavirus, drawing accusations from Netanyahu's rivals that he is extracting personal and political gain from the health crisis.
Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust for his dealings with media moguls. He was scheduled to appear in court Tuesday for the opening hearing of his trial, but a panel of judges delayed it to May 24, citing a state of emergency declared by the caretaker justice minister.
Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a Netanyahu loyalist, claimed no political interference. Emanuel Gross, professor emeritus of law at Haifa University in Israel, said in an interview with NPR that he believed coronavirus concerns were a legitimate reason to delay the trial.
But critics raised eyebrows as the justice minister last week expanded his powers enabling him to freeze the courts due to a health crisis, then around 1 a.m. Sunday issued a freeze on non-urgent court hearings for 24 hours, which is liable to be extended.
"The delay of the trial at this time does not hurt Benjamin Netanyahu, and the rest you can understand yourself," wrote former state prosecutor Eran Shender in an op-ed.
The delay in Netanyahu's hearing followed new restrictions Netanyahu enacted to combat the spread of coronavirus, banning gatherings of more than 10 people and closing schools, restaurants, malls, movie theaters, gyms and other non-essential public venues. Israel is also banning entry to most foreign visitors and has ordered some 30,000 Israelis into home quarantine. There are around 200 coronavirus cases in the country, most of them mild.
Netanyahu came under additional criticism for seeking to use surveillance technology to track virus carriers, a move that would impinge on Israelis' privacy. The government on Sunday approved tracking Israeli coronavirus carriers' cellphones to determine who they may have come in contact with. "We are in the midst of an emergency, but this doesn't mean that turning Israel into a surveillance state is justified," said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler of the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute.
Gantz on Sunday appeared unwilling to give Netanyahu a lifeline to stay in office.
"Netanyahu, don't try to manipulate the citizens of Israel," Gantz tweeted. "If you're interested in unity, why postpone your trial at 1 a.m. and send an 'emergency unity' outline to the press."
Moshe Yaalon, Netanyahu's former defense minister turned political rival in Gantz's Blue and White coalition, accused Netanyahu of "cynically taking advantage of the corona crisis for personal political needs of a defendant before trial."
In a separate tweet, Yaalon wrote, "Blue and White cannot be a partner to the destruction of democracy in our country by a defendant fleeing trial."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Could Benjamin Netanyahu be on his way out as Israel's prime minister? His opponent Benny Gantz has now been chosen to try to form a new government, and he is vowing to do it within days. Netanyahu says he should continue to lead the country, to tackle Israel's emergency response to the coronavirus, which Gantz claims is sowing panic. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Jerusalem.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The coronavirus has hit Israel at a moment of political instability. This month's elections ended in stalemate for the third time in a year. Benjamin Netanyahu has stayed on as caretaker prime minister and is leading Israel's response to the coronavirus. But he faces a setback. Israel's president is giving Netanyahu's rival, the centrist retired army General Benny Gantz, the first chance to try to form a new government.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN: (Non-English language spoken).
ESTRIN: In a video on YouTube, President Reuven Rivlin explained the process to Israelis. As president, he picks the candidate with the best chance of building a governing coalition. On Sunday, a slim majority of 61 lawmakers out of the newly elected 120-member Parliament backed Gantz over Netanyahu, and the president has given Gantz several weeks to try to form a government. What helped tip the scales toward Gantz? In a historic move, a coalition of Arab parties unanimously supported him. A fifth of the Israeli population are Palestinian Arab citizens.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
ESTRIN: This video of Israelis protesting the Arab lawmakers Sunday was posted by Netanyahu on Facebook. He calls the Arab parties terrorist supporters. Gantz could build a government dependent on the support of Arab parties. His other option is to enter a partnership with his rival, Netanyahu, which up to now Gantz has refused to do.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Non-English language spoken).
ESTRIN: On TV, Netanyahu called for an emergency government to handle the coronavirus crisis, with him still in charge. But Gantz doesn't want to give a lifeline to Netanyahu, who faces corruption charges. The coronavirus, however, has offered Netanyahu some relief. His trial was scheduled to start tomorrow, but his hand-picked justice minister declared a state of emergency in the courts due to the virus, and judges postponed his trial.
Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.
(SOUNDBITE OF KODOMO'S "CONCEPT 15") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.