Israel's Gantz elected speaker, paving way for unity government

The sudden turnabout by Benny Gantz appears to give embattled prime minister Netanyahu a new lease on life as he prepares to go on trial for corruption charges.

TEL AVIV - Israel's ex-military chief Benny Gantz called for an emergency unity government after being elected parliament speaker Thursday, likely leading to an alliance with his rival Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ostensibly to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

"These are unusual times and they call for unusual decisions," Gantz told the Knesset, Israel's parliament, after his speakership election. "That is why I intend to explore the formation of an emergency unity government."

Gantz, the only candidate nominated to succeed Netanyahu ally Yuli Edelstein as speaker, won the speakership vote with 74 lawmakers voting in favour and 18 against in the 120-seat chamber.

Parliament called Thursday's vote at the order of the country's Supreme Court. In protest, Edelstein resigned from his role as speaker on Wednesday, after attempting to stall the vote.

Edelstein, a member of the prime minister's Likud party, had cited restrictions on large gatherings due to the spread of the coronavirus in suspending parliamentary activity and holding off on a vote for his own successor. But opponents accused him of clinging to his seat even though he lacked majority support in order to shield his party leader Netanyahu from legislation that would limit his lengthy rule.

The sudden turnabout by Gantz, who has spent the past year trying to topple Netanyahu in three inconclusive elections, appeared to give the embattled prime minister a new lease on life as he prepares to go on trial for corruption charges.

It also drew angry criticism from Gantz' political partners and looked likely to rip apart his Blue and White party, an alliance of three anti-Netanyahu factions. They included the secular-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, headed by Netanyahu rival Avigdor Lieberman, as well as the predominantly Palestinian-Israeli Joint List, who view Netanyahu as an anti-Arab racist and had sought his removal from office.

Many of Gantz' former partners opted to skip the vote, while a string of opposition lawmakers who had all previously backed Gantz streamed into the empty parliament chamber one after another to rail against him. Only a few people were allowed in at a time due to restrictions on public gatherings.

“This is a dark day,” said Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the liberal Meretz party, in a speech ahead of the vote. “There are no other ways to describe the runaround going on here.”

Gantz said he had taken the unpopular step in order to deal with the national emergency presented by the coronavirus outbreak.

“Democracy has won,” Gantz declared in his first speech as speaker. “These are not regular days and they demand irregular decisions. Therefore as I said, I intend to examine and advance in every way the establishment of national emergency government.”

“We will not compromise on the principles that more than 1 million citizens voted for. Netantyahu knows that well,” he added.

Israel’s Channel 12 TV reported that Gantz and Netanyahu had agreed on a broad coalition in which Netanyahu would remain as prime minister and Gantz would become his foreign minister. In September 2021, the two are to swap posts, the report said.