Benny Gantz was voted in as Knesset speaker on Thursday, paving the way for an "emergency" unity government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as Israel's government works to mitigate the coronavirus crisis.
Over the past year, Gantz has repeatedly vowed never to join a Netanyahu-led government, citing the premier's corruption cases.
Gantz's Kahol Lavan party has split moments ahead of the vote, after the party leader nominated himself for the position of Knesset speaker, in a bid to keep the possibility of a unity government with Netanyahu's Likud party.
Kahol Lavan's co-leaders Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya'alon, who were critical of the move, filed a request on Thursday to split their Knesset roster. Their two factions will remain as one party under the name Kahol Lavan.
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The vote on Gantz's nomination was approved with 74 lawmakers in favor, including many of Netanyahu's right-wing bloc, and 18 against. Some parties, including Lapid's Yesh Atid faction, boycotted the vote.
In his first speech as Knesset speaker, Gantz argued for an "emergency national unity government" to allow Israel to recover from the coronavirus outbreak. "These are not normal times," he told lawmakers, "and they call for unusual decisions."
He said this was "the right thing to do at this time," stressing he would "not compromise democracy," but made no direct remarks on Netanyahu's impending trial, which during the March 2 election campaign he said disqualifies him from serving on as prime minister.
Kahol Lavan split
Gantz's party initially intended to nominate Meir Cohen, a member of Lapid's Yesh Atid faction, and use the position to promote legislation that would prevent an indicted lawmaker from forming a government and acting as prime minister.
Likud has slammed the legislation as personal, and has repeatedly said that Cohen's election would immediately terminate talks about forming a unity government with Kahol Lavan. Gantz strives to enter an emergency unity government with Netanyahu, and vetoed Lapid's offer to nominate Cohen, who in return threatened to disband the political alliance that over the last year cemented its status as an alternative to Netanyahu's Likud.
“The coronavirus crisis doesn’t permit us to give up our values," Lapid said in a televised statement, "We said we won’t let Israeli democracy be harmed… This is rewarding criminality.”
Lapid accused Gantz of "surrender without a fight" and "crawling" to join a Netanyahu government, asserting that his party would remain in the opposition.
Ya’alon spoke after Lapid, calling it a sad day. "We’ve worked long and hard on creating an alternative for Israel … It gave many people hope,” he said. The former defense minister charged that Netanyahu's years in government damaged Israeli democracy and the principle of separation of powers, adding that Gantz’s decision "tramples over every (political) norm.”
Yuli Edelstein, who acted as Knesset speaker on behalf of Likud after having been elected for the role after Israel's election in April, refused to fulfill a High Court ruling calling on him to convene the Knesset in order to vote on his successor by Wednesday.
The ruling came as a result of the petition by Kahol Lavan which sought to replace Edelstein with a speaker from its ranks and promote legislation which would prevent an indicted lawmaker from forming a government and acting as prime minister.
In the High Court decision, Supreme Court President Justice Esther Hayut attacked Edelstein, saying he had committed "an unprecedented violation of the rule of law." Hayut had strongly criticized Edelstein's decision to lock the plenary contrary to the court's decision.
Hayut said that Edelstein's decision could lead to civilians not obeying government orders regarding the coronavirus. "If this is how a person of authority behaves, why should the citizen behave otherwise? ... Especially during these difficult days when we are dealing with the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic, and citizens are required to comply with the unprecedented provisions and restrictions imposed by emergency regulations."
In his resignation speech, Edelstein charged that "the High Court's decision undercuts the foundations of democracy ... I'm not interested in being in contempt of the court. I respect the dictates of my conscience."