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In Israel, An Unexpected Political Twist Could Keep Netanyahu In Power

An anti-Netanyahu protester shouts slogans during a demonstration in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
Emmanuel Dunand
AFP via Getty Images
An anti-Netanyahu protester shouts slogans during a demonstration in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem on Wednesday.

A political twist in Israel may help the embattled prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, stay in power.

After three inconclusive elections, the right wing Netanyahu and his centrist rival Benny Gantz are reportedly close to a deal to rotate as prime minister, with Netanyahu taking the first turn.

Gantz, a former army general, entered politics last year seeking to unseat Israel's longtime prime minister. He had previously refused to enter a government led by Netanyahu, citing concerns about his corruption indictment.

But he changed his tune on Thursday, saying that what is needed is an emergency unity government because the coronavirus epidemic requires compromise. "These are not ordinary days and they require extraordinary decisions," he said in a tweet.

On Thursday, in a surprise move and with Netanyahu's support, Gantz was elected speaker of Israel's parliament, the Knesset.

This increases the chances of a unity government because until Gantz put himself forward for the job, the front-runner was a center-left lawmaker who was poised to advance legislation to prevent Netanyahu from forming a government. Netanyahu had said if that happened he would not agree to a unity government, forcing yet another election.

Gantz said the only reason he put himself forward as Knesset speaker was to improve the possibility of forming a unity government. He is not expected to remain in the position – Israeli media reports suggest he is likely to become foreign minister in a unity government.

Seventy-four parliamentarians voted for Gantz as speaker, and 18 voted against him, with some parties boycotting, according to Haaretz.

Lawmakers who supported Gantz are accusing him of betraying his center left.

Yair Lapid, the co-leader of Gantz's Blue and White alliance who has now become Gantz's rival, blasted his move, saying in a speech that "what's being formed today isn't a unity government and not an emergency government. It's another Netanyahu government." He said that Gantz "surrendered without a fight."

"The coronavirus crisis doesn't give us the right or permission to abandon our values," he added.

Now, political alliances are shifting, and Gantz's center-left alliance has splintered. Gantz and Netanyahu are expected to continue negotiating to build a majority coalition.

Earlier this month, Gantz was believed to have an upper hand in the political jockeying when he was given the first chance to try to form a government.

But Netanyahu has been arguing that he should remain prime minister in light of the coronavirus epidemic. He put forward options to break the deadlock, such as a six-month emergency government led by Netanyahu, or a unity government where Netanyahu would be prime minister first.

This isn't the first time that the coronavirus crisis has appeared to give Netanyahu's political future a boost – as NPR has reported, his corruption trial was postponed due to emergency measures responding to the pandemic.

Israelis are under lockdown due to the virus. The country has more than 2,600 cases and at least eight deaths.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.

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