JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was set to hold onto power after his chief rival, Benny Gantz, reversed himself Thursday and signaled that he would be open to serving in a Netanyahu-led government.
Gantz, a former Israeli army chief who had vowed to bring Netanyahu’s long rule to an end and fought him to a draw in three elections, said he was changing course to help bring the country together to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
“These are unusual times, and they call for unusual decisions,” Gantz said in a speech to parliament early Thursday evening.
“This is not the time for infighting and mudslinging,” he said. “This is not the time for controversy and divisions. This is the time for responsible, committed, patriotic leadership. Let’s join hands and get Israel out of this crisis.”
The move was a 180-degree reversal and broke countless campaign promises by Gantz. Netanyahu has been indicted on criminal corruption charges, and Gantz had vowed not to serve in a government led by a prime minister under indictment.
Gantz said that he would “explore the formation of a national emergency government” because of the coronavirus, which has claimed eight lives in Israel, infected thousands, and devastated the country’s economy.
Gantz’s move immediately led to the breakup of his centrist Blue and White party.
He may also have doomed his own political future as a credible alternative to Netanyahu, some analysts said. Others said a unity government would offer Gantz his best chance at taking over as prime minister at some point in the future.
The shape of a new government and of Gantz’s role in it were not immediately clear Thursday afternoon. As an interim move, Gantz nominated himself for the position of parliament speaker, acquiescing to a key demand by Netanyahu, and was voted into that position Thursday evening.
Netanyahu had been urging Gantz to join forces with him to fight the coronavirus crisis after the most recent election, on March 2, left neither of them in a position to form a majority government.
Netanyahu has proposed a three-year government in which he would stay on as prime minister for the next 18 months and Gantz would take over for the next 18. Alternatively, Netanyahu has floated the idea of a temporary emergency government for the next six months under his leadership, to be followed either by a new deal for a unity government or a fourth election.
Gantz did not say Thursday whether he supported either of these proposals. Thursday’s endgame was particularly head-spinning, even for the hurly-burly of Israeli politics.
Gantz went from petitioning the Supreme Court on Wednesday to censure the previous speaker, Yuli Edelstein — a Netanyahu ally who resigned rather than allow the election of a new speaker — to accepting Edelstein’s support in the Thursday vote that elected Gantz as speaker.
Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party had issued an ultimatum that if Blue and White nominated its original candidate for speaker, Meir Cohen, that would spell the end of unity talks. Cohen had been expected to advance legislation blocking Netanyahu from serving another term.
Gantz’s acquiescence to that demand — by nominating himself instead — prompted howls of denunciation in parliament from his partners in the center and left.
Ahmed Tibi, a lawmaker from the predominantly Arab Joint List, declared that Gantz was suffering the “virus of surrender.”
Many Israelis, however, thought Gantz took the high road in light of the public-health emergency.