Opposition leader Benny Gantz was officially charged yesterday with the task of forming Israel’s next government after a roller-coaster weekend of political manoeuvring.

It came against the backdrop of the country in a virtual lockdown as dramatic measures to counter the coronavirus were taken by Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government.

Gantz, who leads the centrist Blue and White alliance, received the mandate from Reuven Rivlin on Monday after he gained recommendations from a majority of members of the Knesset. Those recommendations stretched from the right-wing former defence minister Avigdor Liberman to the Israeli-Arab Joint List.

Gantz said he aimed to “form a national unity government, as broad as possible, within days”. He also pledged to “heal the Israeli society of the coronavirus, as well as the virus of hatred and division”. “These are not normal days. Leaders must put aside personal considerations,” he added.

The narrowness of Gantz’s mandate – he received the backing of 61 of the Knesset’s 120 members – and the deep ideological divisions between those backing him will make the job of assembling a government hugely difficult. He has 28 days to negotiate a coalition, with the possibility of a further 14-day extension. If he fails, Netanyahu will almost certainly have the opportunity to try before new elections – potentially in September – are triggered.

However, the opposition leader will be aided by the shared antipathy towards Netanyahu among those who backed him having first shot at leading the government. There was outrage in the early hours of Sunday when the prime minister’s justice secretary – citing the coronavirus – closed down the court system effectively delaying the start this week of Netanyahu’s trial on corruption charges.

Gantz will also be buoyed by the strong desire of Israelis to break the political stalemate which has paralysed their country’s politics for the past year and led to an unprecedented three general elections. Netanyahu failed to assemble a coalition after last April’s general election, and both he and Gantz were unable to form a government after September’s poll. Those failures led to a further inconclusive result on 2 March. It saw Netanyahu’s Likud party gaining seats but left his right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc still three votes short of a majority in the Knesset

The deadlock was partially broken on Sunday when Gantz won the support of both Liberman – who twice failed to back his former ally, Netanyahu, after last year’s elections – and the Joint List. In a surprise move, one of the Joint List’s four parties, the hardline anti-Zionist Balad party, also chose to back Gantz. In September, the Blue and White leader was backed by three of the four Joint List parties – the first time since 1992 that Israeli-Arab parties have formally recommended a prime minister to the president – but Balad opted to abstain. It had been expected to do so once again.

On Sunday, however, Balad leader Mtanes Shehadeh said it was recommending Gantz “in order to topple the leadership of the largest generators of incitement against the Arab society and its leadership”. Netanyahu has faced heavy criticism for attempting to drive up turnout among his right-wing base by demonising the Arab parties and attempt to suppress turnout among their supporters. That gambit has spectacularly backfired with Israeli-Arab turnout rising from less than 50 percent in last April’s election to 70 percent – equivalent to that of Jewish-Israeli voters – on 2 March. The Joint List – a coalition of liberals, progressives, Islamists and Arab nationalists – has also seen its seats in the Knesset rise to 15. It is third largest grouping in the Israeli parliament.

Gantz was also recommended by the Labor-Meretz slate. However, Orly Levi-Abekasis, whose Gesher party ran with Labor in September and earlier this month, stunned her political allies last week by saying she wouldn’t support Gantz becoming prime minister with the backing of the Joint List. Her decision sparked fury in both Labor and Meretz and calls for her to resign as an MK. On Sunday, Levi-Abekasis carried through her threat and didn’t join the left-wing parties in recommending Gantz. Had Balad abstained, her betrayal would almost certainly have cost the opposition leader the chance to try and form a government.

Following his meetings with the various parties, Rivlin summoned Netanyahu and Gantz to an “urgent” late-night meeting on Sunday at the president’s residence. He discussed with the pair the “possibility of forming a government immediately” – code for the establishment of a unity government to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, which has seen Israel shuts its borders and enter lockdown. As part of the ban on public gatherings of more than 10 people, the new Knesset was sworn in on Monday in 40 rounds of three MKs at a time; Netanyahu, Gantz and the parliament’s speaker, Yuli Edelstein, were sworn in together. The three men listened alone in an otherwise empty Knesset chamber to Rivlin’s inaugural speech.

In recent days, Netanyahu himself has urged the formation of an emergency unity government – but insisted that he lead it. Netanyahu suggested the administration would last six months and then disband or continue with himself as prime minister for a further 18 months with Gantz taking the helm for the second half of its four-year term. Gantz has repeatedly refused to serve in a government with Netanyahu given the corruption charges against him. Rivlin is believed to have proposed that Netanyahu serve for just one year before handing over to Gantz.

Bibi’s day in court delayed

Netanyahu’s latest proposal on Saturday evening was rejected by Gantz following extraordinary moves in the early hours of Sunday morning by interim justice minister Amir Ohana to shut down the courts – a decision which flew in the face of advice by the Health Ministry. Ohana’s decision came just 60 hours before Netanyahu’s trial on charges of breach of trust, fraud and bribery was due to begin. It pushed the start of the prime minister’s trial back to 24 May. “Courts and parliamentary operations must not be suspended, even in emergencies,” Meretz leader, Nitzan Horowitz suggested in response.

Gantz himself tweeted: “Someone who wants unity does not postpone their trial at 1am. When you get serious, we’ll talk.”

The Blue and White leader later suggested after meeting with Rivlin on Monday: “This process has been accompanied by illegitimate efforts by the current prime minister to evade justice. No man is bigger than the Israeli Zionist project.”

Opposition anger was further stoked on Sunday evening when Edelstein said he would prevent the new Knesset from electing a new speaker, justifying the move on the basis that it would slow attempts to form a unity government. In reality, however, Edelstein, a Likud MK,  knows that Gantz and the other opposition parties were planning to replace him. Blue and White is now threatening to go to the Supreme Court to force Edelstein into holding a vote, although it’s not yet clear – given the coronavirus restrictions – how a plenary Knesset session would be held; under current rules a member must be in the chamber to vote.

Gantz is also reported to be preparing to ask the 61MKs who supported him becoming prime minister to back two new laws: one would prevent anyone charged with a crime from becoming prime minister, the other would reintroduce the direct election of prime minister. Together, the two moves would effectively prevent Netanyahu from standing in a potential fourth election if Gantz’s efforts to form a government fail. Israel experimented with direct elections to the post of prime minister in the 1990s and Netanyahu, Ehud Barack and Ariel Sharon were all first elected under that system.

Obstacles ahead

Certainly, Gantz faces large obstacles as he seeks to form a government.

•    Already, Netanyahu’s allies in the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties have declined the invitation to meet with him.
•    The Joint List – which won’t formally join a government but might, as it did for Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor administration in 1992, provide a form of confidence and supply – has made clear that it will only back a “centre-left” government and would oppose any unity government with Likud.
•    Within Blue and White itself, two rebels MKs say they will oppose a government which is brought to power with the votes of the Joint List. At the same time, the leaders of two of the alliance’s constituents parties – the liberal Yair Lapid and more right-wing Moshe Ya’alon – are adamantly opposed to any deal with Netanyahu.
•    Liberman, who has been accused of anti-Arab racism in the past, is unlikely to participate in a government backed by the Joint List (a fierce secularist, he’s also refusing to sit in a government with the ultra-Orthodox parties).
•    And when Netanyahu proposed a unity government last week, Gantz made clear it would have to be “broad national government including representatives of all parts of the house [the Knesset]”; in other words, Netanyahu would have to win the backing of the Joint, a near-impossible feat given the mistrust of the prime minister by the Arab parties.

Political novice though he is, Gantz has proved a more wily political operator than many expected, even against the formidable Netanyahu. For now, the initiative is in the former IDF chief’s hands.