Benny Gantz, breaking vows, says he would serve under Benjamin Netanyahu

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Jerusalem: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was set to hold onto power after his chief rival, Benny Gantz, reversed himself on Thursday and signalled he would be open to serving in a Netanyahu-led government.

Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party: "It all sounds like political pressure."

Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party: "It all sounds like political pressure."Credit:AP

Gantz, a former Israeli army chief who had vowed to bring Netanyahu's long rule to an end and fought him to a draw in three elections, said he was changing course to help bring the country together to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

"These are unusual times, and they call for unusual decisions," Gantz said in a speech to parliament early Thursday evening.

"This is not the time for infighting and mudslinging," he said. "This is not the time for controversy and divisions. This is the time for responsible, committed, patriotic leadership. Let's join hands and get Israel out of this crisis."

The move was a 180-degree reversal and broke countless campaign promises by Gantz. Netanyahu has been indicted on criminal corruption charges, and Gantz had vowed not to serve in a government led by a prime minister under indictment.

Gantz said he would "explore the formation of a national emergency government" because of the coronavirus, which has claimed eight lives in Israel, infected thousands and devastated the country's economy.

Gantz's move immediately led to the breakup of his centrist Blue and White party.

He may also have doomed his own political future as a credible alternative to Netanyahu, some analysts said. Others said a unity government would offer Gantz his best chance at taking over as prime minister at some point in the future.

The shape of a new government and of Gantz's role in it were not immediately clear on Thursday afternoon. As an interim move, Gantz nominated himself up for the position of parliament speaker, acquiescing to a key demand by Netanyahu, and was voted into that position Thursday evening.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit:AP

Netanyahu had been urging Gantz to join forces with him to fight the coronavirus crisis after the most recent election, on March 2, left neither of them in a position to form a majority government.

Gantz was expected to serve as speaker for a short time, possibly only for a few days, before taking on a senior ministerial role in a unity government.

The New York Times