Israel MPs tasked with ending deadlock over unity govt

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Israel's parliament was tasked with forming a government on Thursday after speaker Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin missed a deadline to seal an alliance, but both sides said negotiations would continue.

Israel's deeply divided 120-member parliament has no clear path towards a stable governing coalition, so the move risks prolonging the country's worst-ever political crisis.

But despite missing the Wednesday deadline, there remained a chance that Gantz and Netanyahu could agree on an emergency unity government to help Israel confront the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The most likely scenario remains a unity government," said Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University.

"But that is by no means certain."

Following a March 2 election, Israel's third inconclusive vote in less than a year, Gantz was given four weeks to form a stable governing coalition.

After he was elected speaker late last month, the centrist ex-military chief pledged to form an emergency unity government with the right-wing Netanyahu who has been prime minister since 2009.

- Power sharing -

Gantz conceded that Netanyahu would lead that government as prime minister, at least to begin with, as Israel faces an unprecedented health crisis that has exacted a devastating economic toll.

The two have discussed a range of power-sharing options, including scenarios that would see Gantz take over as premier after 18 months, with ministerial positions split between Gantz's Blue and White alliance and Netanyahu's Likud.

After assuring President Reuven Rivlin that they were close to agreement, Gantz and Netanyahu were given until the end of Wednesday to reach a deal.

The deadline passed without any announcement of a breakthrough, although a joint statement issued on Thursday said the talks were ongoing.

"Upon finalisation of the meeting between the respective negotiating teams last night, it was concluded to continue discussions today, with the aim of reaching an agreement toward the establishment of a national emergency government," the statement said.

Meanwhile, Rivlin officially informed Gantz that his mandate had expired and that the task of forming a government now passed to parliament, a statement from his office said.

Rivlin's move gives lawmakers 21 days to nominate one of their number to form a government. That nominee would then have two weeks to build a coalition.

They could select Gantz, Netanyahu or someone else.

But, as Rynhold said, "it comes down to a unity government (with Gantz and Netanyahu) or another election."

- Fourth election? -

Rivlin implored lawmakers to find a solution that avoids another vote. He called the latest campaign "awful (and) grubby," and expressed embarrassment that political leaders have been unable to find compromise.

But polls have found Netanyahu's support has risen during the COVID-19 crisis.

Gantz's decision to seek a deal with Netanyahu triggered the break-up of his Blue and White alliance, dramatically weakening his political position.

Many commentators have suggested that Netanyahu may be seeking to draw out unity talks before forcing Israel into another election, hoping he will finally win the absolute majority he needs both to remain in power and to pass legislation that would shield him from prosecution over longstanding corruption allegations.

The prime minister was indicted in January with bribery, fraud and breach of trust but denies all charges.

Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told AFP that "buying time" is in Netanyahu's interest.

But, as Rynhold noted, Netanyahu's current solid polling could simply be "rallying around the flag" during a global crisis and may erode by the time an election is held.

Rynhold agreed with other experts that the key stumbling block in unity talks is control of the justice ministry and judicial nominations, particularly those connected with overseeing Netanyahu's graft case.