Deal Extends Netanyahu’s Rule as Rival Accepts Israeli Unity Government

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and his former challenger, Benny Gantz, agreed Monday night to establish a unity government, a deal that finally breaks a yearlong political impasse and keeps Mr. Netanyahu in office as he faces trial on corruption charges.

After three inconclusive elections in the past year, the creation of the new government forestalls what had appeared to be an inevitable fourth election and offers a deeply divided Israel a chance for national healing and unity as it battles the coronavirus pandemic.

The deal, announced by the two men’s political parties at 7:15 p.m., extends Mr. Netanyahu’s tenure as Israel’s longest-serving leader and, coming after his conservative coalition failed to win a majority, cements his reputation as a canny political survivor who can never be counted out.

For Mr. Gantz, a former army chief and relative political novice, however, the agreement may end up having the opposite effect. The move was a stunning turnabout after his repeated campaign vows that he would never serve with a prime minister under criminal indictment, and a disappointment to many of his supporters who see it as a capitulation to a leader they had wanted to oust.

Under the deal, which the two leaders cast as an emergency government to fight the coronavirus, Mr. Gantz will be named deputy prime minister and is to get a turn as prime minister halfway through their three-year term, in October 2021. But given Mr. Netanyahu’s political skills, Israeli analysts were skeptical that he would hand over power when the time came — or even that the emergency government would last that long.

Despite the sense of urgency to form a joint government to fight the virus sweeping through the country, the final sticking points in the negotiations were political. According to representatives of Mr. Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party, they included differing approaches to President Trump’s proposal to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Mr. Netanyahu has pledged to swiftly and unilaterally annex large swaths of the occupied West Bank while Mr. Gantz has said he would support annexation only with international consensus, which has not been forthcoming.

The final agreement delays consideration of annexation until July 1 at the earliest. It declares that annexation must be done in a way that safeguards Israel’s interests, “including the needs for preserving regional stability, protecting existing peace agreements and aspiring for future ones.” But it leaves those determinations up to the government and says that Mr. Gantz is only entitled to “consultation” with Mr. Netanyahu on annexation, not a veto.

The two-month delay allows opponents of annexation, who say it would reignite the conflict and deal a death blow to already dim hopes of a two-state solution, a brief window to build international and domestic support to try to block such a move.

The two sides also disagreed over a change proposed by Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party in the procedure for appointing judges.

The agreement required compromises on both sides.

For now, it offers a vital lifeline to Mr. Netanyahu, who can fight his corruption trial from the prime minister’s office.

By seizing the initiative and taking aggressive steps to combat the coronavirus, Mr. Netanyahu had already gone a long way to reasserting his leadership and varnishing his international profile.

“I promised the state of Israel a national emergency government that would work to save the lives and livelihoods of Israeli citizens,” he wrote on Twitter. “I will continue to do everything for you, citizens of Israel.”

Mr. Gantz’s assent to a joint government led to the immediate breakup of his party, dismantling the most formidable adversary Mr. Netanyahu faced during his last 11 years in office.

Many of Mr. Gantz’s former supporters have accused him of betraying them by joining Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious coalition. Some analysts said the decisions may have ended Mr. Gantz’s nascent political career.

Mr. Gantz has argued that given the public health crisis, it was the only responsible thing to do.

“We prevented a fourth election,” he said in a Twitter post Monday night. “We will preserve democracy. We will fight the coronavirus and take care of all of Israel’s citizens.”

The coronavirus is known to have infected more than 13,600 Israelis, and has claimed at least 173 lives so far. The country has been under lockdown, with potentially devastating economic consequences, and is only beginning to allow some businesses to resume operation under strict conditions.

The primary goals of Mr. Gantz’s campaigns were to unseat Mr. Netanyahu and to uphold the rule of law after years of vitriolic attacks by Mr. Netanyahu and his supporters on the police and the judiciary.

After the last election, on March 2, a diverse, Gantz-led array of anti-Netanyahu forces, ranging from Arab and Islamic parties to Jewish ultranationalists, gained a slim majority of 61 parliamentary seats in the 120-seat Parliament. Cooperating to form even a minority government proved impossible, but Mr. Gantz and his allies did agree to try to deny Mr. Netanyahu yet another term, either by enacting term limits or by passing a law to bar an indicted lawmaker from forming a government.

There is little prospect now of such legislation being passed. Instead, Mr. Netanyahu gains crucial leverage by remaining prime minister if he tries to negotiate a deal with state prosecutors or even to reapply for immunity from prosecution.

Still, it remains to be seen if the emergency government can outlive the coronavirus crisis, and if Mr. Gantz can survive it politically.

“Gantz sincerely and truly believed that he would be saving the country,” Sima Kadmon, a political columnist, wrote in Friday’s Yediot Ahronot newspaper. “He discovered very quickly whom he had been mobilized to save, and that was Netanyahu.”

Adam Rasgon contributed reporting.

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