Israel's ex-army chief Gantz gets shot at forming new government

Blue and White's Benny Gantz urges Benjamin Netanyahu to join him as Israel seeks to end crippling political impasse.

    Israel's ex-military chief Benny Gantz was nominated Monday to try to form a government, but further talks were expected with his bitter rival, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on an emergency alliance to fight coronavirus.

    Gantz, who heads the centrist Blue and White party, called for "unity" and urged Netanyahu to join him as Israel seeks to end a crippling political deadlock after three inconclusive elections in less than a year.

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    "We must not have a fourth election," Gantz said, after he was formally nominated by President Reuven Rivlin to attempt to form an administration.

    "I'll do everything to form in as few days as possible a national, patriotic and broad government."

    Gantz won recommendations on Sunday from 61 legislators, a razor-thin majority in the 120-member parliament, the Knesset.

    His backers did not include Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, but Rivlin has urged the two men to work together in an emergency government to effectively respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

    "It is possible that forming a government quickly will require interim arrangements for the coming months," Rivlin said on Monday, citing the "national and international emergency".

    Rivlin later addressed the new Knesset, with legislators having their temperatures taken before being brought into the chamber in twos and threes, to reduce risk of virus transmission. 

    In remarks to a chamber empty but for Netanyahu and Gantz, he implored all legislators to end the impasse.

    "The citizens of Israel are exhausted," the president said. "I have just one request to make of you. Give [them] a government."

    Squaring the circle 

    Gantz's path to a longer-term stable coalition is difficult given the deep divisions within the factions that backed him, which include the mainly Arab Joint List and the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, which are bitter foes.

    Gantz has 28 days to forge a government, a task which proved impossible for any candidate following the two elections last year.

    Netanyahu - Israel's longest-serving premier and the first ever to be indicted in office on corruption charges - has insisted that voters in the March 2 election gave him a mandate to continue as prime minister.

    The vote saw Likud secure the most seats but, along with its religious party allies, it fell three seats short of a majority. 

    Gantz made calls to Netanyahu's religious allies on Monday, but was rebuffed for now. 

    The head of the religious, nationalist Yemina party, Defence Minister Naftali Bennett, urged Gantz to let Netanyahu lead a short-term emergency government. 

    The head of the ultraorthodox United Torah Judaism, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, told Gantz he was focused on the fight against coronavirus and remained solidly behind Netanyahu. 

    Rivlin has made clear he wants a government in place soon to help Israel beat back the pandemic.

    The president had summoned Gantz and Netanyahu on Sunday for an "urgent conversation", which ended without agreement, but Likud and Blue and White said the talks would continue.

    Coronavirus coalition? 

    Israel has 255 confirmed cases of coronavirus with no fatalities but 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, 70, on Sunday, proposed a six-month unity government that he would lead to manage the response to the pandemic.

    He also offered a four-year arrangement that would see the two leaders equally split the job of prime minister.

    Gantz has consistently refused to serve in any government led by someone facing criminal charges. 

    Netanyahu was in January formally charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies wrongdoing.

    His trial had been due to open on Tuesday, but Jerusalem's District Court postponed it to May 24, blaming the virus outbreak. 

    The prime minister's rivals cried foul, accusing him of using the public health crisis to push back his long-anticipated day in court.  

    SOURCE: AFP news agency