Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is ready to step down next year as part of a proposed power-sharing agreement with his chief rival Benny Gantz.
The move is intended to steer the country through the coronavirus crisis and end a year-long political deadlock.
Mr Netanyahu made his proposal during a nationally televised interview, calling for the formation of a three-year “emergency” unity government with the rival Blue and White Party.
He told Channel 12 TV that he would remain as prime minister for the first year and a half, and allow Blue and White leader Mr Gantz to assume the post for a second year-and-a-half term in September 2021.
The prime minister said each party would have an equal number of seats in the cabinet.
Mr Netanyahu said: “I will give up the prime minister’s post in another year and a half.”
Yair Lapid, a senior Blue and White leader, dismissed Mr Netanyahu’s unity offer as insincere.
“Next week, we will go to choose a new parliament speaker and work to battle coronavirus for the good of the people,” he said.
Israel is facing a growing threat from the coronavirus pandemic. It has detected nearly 900 cases and reported its first death on Friday.
With the public largely confined to their homes, the economy appears to be in great danger, with tens of thousands of people losing their jobs.
Blue and White has accused Mr Netanyahu of using the coronavirus crisis to undermine the country’s democratic institutions and try to derail his scheduled trial on corruption charges.
Senior members of Mr Gantz’s party have expressed scepticism at previous power-sharing overtures by Mr Netanyahu, concerned that he would not follow through on his promises to cede power.
Israel this month held its third inconclusive election in under a year.
Mr Netanyahu’s Likud emerged as the largest single party, but fell short of securing a required parliamentary majority.
A slim majority of MPs has endorsed Mr Gantz as their choice for prime minister, though it is unclear whether he will be able to cobble together a governing coalition either.
Mr Gantz now has just over three weeks to form a new government. In the meantime, he is trying to push through legislation in parliament that would in effect prevent Mr Netanyahu from serving as prime minister in the future.
The legislation would impose term limits on the prime minister and bar a politician indicted on criminal charges, like Mr Netanyahu, from being prime minister.
Last week, parliament Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a member of Likud, suspended the parliament’s activities, preventing the newly elected legislature from choosing a new speaker and forming the committees needed to push through Blue and White’s legislative agenda.
Mr Netanyahu’s hand-picked justice minister last week also shut down most of the court system, delaying the prime minister’s trial until at least May.
His opponents have accused him and his surrogates of undermining the country’s democratic institutions. Blue and White plans to file a Supreme Court challenge on Sunday requiring parliament to resume its activities.
With the public ordered to stay at home, tens of thousands of people tuned in on social media late on Saturday to a “virtual protest”, accusing Mr Netanyahu of endangering the country’s democratic foundations.
Former directors of the Mossad and Shin Bet security agencies were among the speakers.
“Benjamin Netanyahu, get yourself together and release us from being your hostages,” said Yuval Diskin, a former Shin Bet director. “Do it for the good of the country and the people.”