Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief rival has been chosen as the new speaker of the country’s parliament.
The sudden turnabout by Benny Gantz, who has spent the past year trying to topple Mr Netanyahu in three inconclusive elections, gives the embattled prime minister a new lease on life as he prepares to go on trial for corruption charges.
And the unexpected step could pave the way for a power-sharing deal between the two men as the country grapples with a worsening coronavirus crisis.
It also drew angry criticism from Mr Gantz’s political partners and looked likely to rip apart his Blue and White party, an alliance of three anti-Netanyahu factions.
The vote passed 74-18, with many of Mr Gantz’s former allies, including half of Blue and White, missing the vote.
“Democracy has won,” Mr Gantz declared in his first speech as speaker, saying he had taken the unpopular step to deal with the national emergency.
He said: “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 national emergency government. We will not compromise on the principles that more than 1 million citizens voted for. Netantyahu knows that well.”
But in a string of speeches ahead of the vote, opposition MPs who had all previously backed Mr 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.
Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the liberal Meretz party, said: “This is a dark day. There are no other ways to describe the runaround going on here.”
Israel’s Channel 12 TV reported that Mr Gantz and Mr Netanyahu had agreed on a broad coalition in which Mr Netanyahu would remain as prime minister and Mr 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 Mr 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.
With the country’s coronavirus crisis worsening by the day, Mr Netanyahu has called for an emergency unity government, most recently in a nationally televised speech.
Mr Gantz has previously rejected Mr Netanyahu’s overtures, citing the prime minister’s upcoming trial on corruption charges. Members of Blue and White believe Mr Netanyahu is using the crisis to shield himself from prosecution and expressed scepticism that Mr Netanyahu would keep his word to relinquish power next year.
But after an appeal for unity by the country’s figurehead president, Mr Gantz agreed to resume unity talks with Mr Netanyahu.
Mr 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 security the required majority in parliament.
Mr 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.