Israel's Gantz, Netanyahu given 48 hours to negotiate unity government
Israel's parliament speaker Benny Gantz was given 48 hours on Tuesday to reach a deal on an emergency unity government with his former election rival, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The narrow negotiating window was approved by President Reuven Rivlin minutes after Gantz's four-week mandate to form a government expired.
In a joint statement, Gantz's centrist Blue and White alliance and Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party said "significant progress" had been made towards a deal in direct talks between the two men early Tuesday morning.
But claims of progress in coalition talks have been made repeatedly since Israel's inconclusive March 2 election, while a deal has remained elusive.
As Israel's unprecedented political deadlock has persisted, there have been widespread calls for an interim, national unity government to combat COVID-19, which has infected more than 11,500 Israelis.
Gantz, an ex-military chief, has squared off against Netanyahu in three votes over the past year.
Neither man earned enough support in any of the votes to forge a stable governing coalition.
Following the most recent polls, a majority of lawmakers in Israel's 120-person parliament, or Knesset, recommended Gantz try to form a government.
But his chances of forging a stable coalition were always remote, given the deep divisions within the anti-Netanyahu camp.
In a surprise move last month, Gantz was elected Knesset speaker and effectively stopped seeking to form a coalition that he would lead as prime minister.
Moment of truth
Instead, he called for an alliance that would be led by Netanyahu for a defined period, allowing Israeli politics to have a rare moment of unity as it stares down an unprecedented health crisis.
Gantz and Netanyahu have discussed various arrangements, including deals that would see Gantz take over as prime minister after several months.
"Israelis are expecting us to put aside our differences and work together," Gantz said late Monday, calling this a "moment of truth."
"History will not forgive us if we fail."
In a statement early Tuesday, Rivlin said he had agreed to extend Gantz's mandate until the end of Wednesday following a request that came "with the support" of Netanyahu.
Gantz and Netanyahu conveyed that "they are very close to reaching an agreement," the statement further said.
Top former Gantz allies have broken with the speaker since his decision last month to seek a deal with Netanyahu, arguing that the prime minister cannot be trusted to honour the terms of an accord.
In office since 2009, Netanyahu is Israel's longest-serving premier and the first to be indicted while in office.
The premier denies charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, filed against him in January.
Netanyahu critics have charged that he will stop at nothing to make the indictments disappear, including pushing for a fourth vote in the hope of finally gaining a parliamentary majority that could push through legislation granting him immunity from prosecution.
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