Israel prez taps Gantz to form govt, hosts alliance talks with Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smiles after first exit poll results for the Israeli elections at his party's headquarters in Tel Aviv. Photo: AP/PTI

Israel's president said on Sunday that he will give Benny Gantz the chance to form a government, but will first hold talks on a possible interim alliance involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Reuven Rivlin made the announcement after Gantz secured recommendations to lead a government from 61 lawmakers in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament, in the wake of a March 2 election -- the third national poll in less than a year.

"Tomorrow, around midday, the president will assign the task of forming the government to (the) head of Kachol Lavan... Benny Gantz," Rivlin's office said in a statement Sunday, using the Hebrew name for Gantz's centrist Blue and White party.

But there is no guarantee that the disparate forces who supported Gantz on Sunday will agree terms on a stable coalition, something that proved impossible following the two inconclusive elections last year. Rivlin has also said that the severity of the coronavirus pandemic means a government should be formed "as soon as possible".

He therefore summoned both Gantz and Netanyahu "for an urgent conversation this evening (Sunday)... regarding the possibility of immediately establishing a government."

A political analyst at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Gideon Rahat, told AFP that despite the fact that Gantz secured the most recommendations, the president may be seeking "to pressure both sides to consider a unity government." He may try "to propose a specific path to it," Rahat said.

On top of support from Blue and White and a smaller centre-left alliance, Gantz was also recommended by the mainly Arab Joint List and the secular, nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party.

Aside from being anti-Netanyahu, the Joint List and Yisrael Beiteinu have almost no political common ground.

Netanyahu's alliance, seen as more cohesive, includes his right-wing Likud as well as its religious, nationalist ally Yemina and two ultra-Orthodox party.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz had previously voiced support for an interim unity government to beat back coronavirus.

The premier had earlier on Sunday specifically proposed a six-month arrangement that he would lead.

"We must unite forces and form a strong and stable government that will be able to pass a budget and make tough decisions," Netanyahu said. Gantz blasted the prime minister for floating that offer to the media, before discussing ideas in private negotiations.

"Unlike you, I'll continue to back any correct government action without any political considerations," Gantz said.

"When you're serious, we'll talk," he added.

Israel has 213 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with tens of thousands in home-quarantine.

Authorities have banned gatherings of more than 10 people and ordered schools, universities, restaurants and cafes to close, among other measures.

Netanyahu was in January formally charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, becoming the first Israeli premier ever indicted in office. Gantz has previously refused to serve in a government led by someone facing criminal charges, but that was before the coronavirus crisis.

Netanyahu's trial had been due to open on Tuesday, but Jerusalem's District Court said that given the severity of the pandemic it had been instructed to hear "only urgent matters".

In Netanyahu's trial, "we have decided to postpone the first hearing until May 24," the court said.

Netanyahu is accused of a range of offences including receiving improper gifts and offering a media mogul lucrative regulatory changes in exchange for favourable coverage. He denies wrongdoing.



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