Benny Gantz, Netanyahu's rival, chosen as Israeli speaker in surprise development

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's chief rival was chosen on Thursday as the new speaker of parliament, an unexpected step that could pave the way to a power-sharing deal between the two men as the country grapples with a worsening coronavirus crisis.

Several Gantz allies were dismayed but he defended the move given the unique COVID-19 crisis

Election campaign billboards showing Benny Gantz, left, and Benjamin Netanyahu, right, are shown on Feb. 20. The election was again inconclusive, leading to a series of developments culminating in Gantz's election on Thursday as Knesset speaker. (Obed Balilty/The Associated Press)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's chief rival was chosen on Thursday as the new speaker of parliament, an unexpected step that could pave the way to a power-sharing deal between the two men as the country grapples with a worsening coronavirus crisis.

The sudden turnabout by Benny Gantz, who has spent the past year trying to topple Netanyahu in three inconclusive elections, appeared to give the embattled prime minister a new lease on life as he prepares to go on trial for corruption charges. It also drew angry criticism from his political partners and looked likely to rip apart his Blue and White party, an alliance of thee-anti-Netanyahu factions.

The vote passed 74-18, with many of Gantz's former allies, including half of Blue and White, skipping the vote.

"Democracy has won," Gantz declared in his first speech as speaker, saying he had taken the unpopular step to deal with the national emergency.

"These are not regular days and they demand irregular decisions. Therefore, as I said, I intend to examine and advance in every way the establishment of a national emergency government," he said. "We will not compromise on the principles that more than one million citizens voted for. Netantyahu knows that well."

But in a string of speeches ahead of the vote, a string of opposition lawmakers who had all previously backed Gantz streamed into the empty parliament chamber one after another to rail against him. Only a few people were allowed in at a time due to restrictions on public gatherings.

"This is a dark day," said Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the liberal Meretz party, in a speech ahead of the vote. "There are no other ways to describe the runaround going on here."

Had previously rejected unity concept

Israel's Channel 12 TV reported that Gantz and Netanyahu had agreed on a broad coalition in which Netanyahu would remain as prime minister and Gantz would become his foreign minister. In September 2021, the two are to swap posts, the report said.

There was no comment from Blue and White, while Netanyahu's Likud party dismissed the reports as "rumours."

The political fireworks come just as the government enacted new restrictions requiring Israelis to almost completely stay at home, under threat of fines. More than 2,600 Israelis have been infected by the new virus, with 41 in serious condition. Eight Israelis have died. There are growing fears that Israel's medical system will eventually be overwhelmed.

With the country's coronavirus crisis worsening by the day, Netanyahu has called for an emergency unity government, most recently in a nationally televised speech Wednesday night.

"I say as clearly as possible: We must put an end to this," he said. "We are one people, we are one state, and the order of the day is unity."

Gantz has previously rejected Netanyahu's overtures, citing the prime minister's upcoming trial on corruption charges. Members of Blue and White believe Netanyahu is using the crisis to shield himself from prosecution and expressed skepticism that Netanyahu would keep his word to relinquish power next year.

But after an appeal for unity by the country's figurehead president, Gantz agreed on Thursday to resume unity talks with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu's Likud emerged as the largest party in the March 2 election, but along with his smaller religious and nationalist allies, fell short of securing the required majority in parliament.

Gantz is backed by a slim majority in the newly elected Knesset and has been pushing for the country's legislature to continue functioning at such a critical time, even without a permanent government in place.

Blue and White had been marching forward in parliament with planned legislation that could have made Netanyahu ineligible from continuing as prime minister.

Parliament had been expected to approve Meir Cohen of Gantz's centrist Blue and White party late Thursday as the new Knesset speaker. That would have allowed the bloc to proceed with planned legislation that includes a ban on indicted politicians, such as Netanyahu, from serving as prime minister.

But at the last minute, Gantz vetoed Cohen's nomination and proposed himself instead. Cohen's Yesh Atid faction, a member of the Blue and White alliance, planned to skip Thursday's vote in protest.

Parliament called Thursday's vote at the order of the country's Supreme Court. The previous speaker, Yuli Edelstein, resigned in protest Wednesday, after attempting to stall the vote.

Edelstein, a close Netanyahu ally, had cited restrictions on large gatherings due to the spread of the coronavirus in suspending parliamentary activity.

But opponents accused him of clinging to his seat even though he lacked majority support in order to shield his party leader Netanyahu from legislation that would limit his lengthy rule.

Netanyahu's caretaker government has passed a series of emergency executive measures to try and quell the spread of the new virus. They have included authorizing unprecedented electronic surveillance of Israeli citizens and a slowdown of court activity that forced the postponement of Netanyahu's own pending criminal trial on serious corruption charges, which has been postponed due to the pandemic.

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