This is Netanyahu’s biggest challenge in 11 years — and not even the virus is an excuse

Benny Gantz was endorsed by a majority of Israeli MKs on Sunday to become Israel’s next prime minister


In the space of less than 24 hours, the opening session of Benjamin Netanyahu’s criminal trial was postponed for two months and his immediate political future was cast in doubt. All while Israel has been gradually shutting down and going in to self-isolation to protect itself from coronavirus.

There had been doubts from the start over whether the Israeli prime minister’s trial on charges of bribery and fraud would go ahead as scheduled in the Jerusalem District Court on March 17.

Initially, the objections were legal: Mr Netanyahu’s lawyers claimed they had not yet seen all the evidence and demanded a postponement of 45 days.

The judges turned down the request, but the state prosecution agreed the session would be devoted only to a reading of the charges and scheduling. Mr Netanyahu would not have to respond to the charges this time, perhaps not even attend.

But it was not to be. On Thursday night justice minister and Netanyahu-confidant Amir Ohana assumed emergency powers to limit the operations of the courts and, at 1am on Sunday morning, he announced the postponement of all non-essential sessions for the next 24 days.

And a few hours later, an unprecedented statement by the judges in the Netanyahu trial, announcing that, in light of the minister’s decision, the opening session scheduled for Tuesday would be postponed for over two months.

This sparked an exchange of accusations that the postponement had somehow been engineered by Mr Ohana on behalf of his boss – a claim he denied. Whatever the truth, the feeling that the prime minister had somehow evaded justice, set the tone for the rest of the day.

As scheduled, President Reuven Rivlin began consultations with every party in the newly-elected Knesset. Because of the crisis, the meetings were all bunched into a single packed day.

Despite days of reports that the main opposition party Blue & White would capitulate and accept Mr Netanyahu’s proposals for an “national emergency” government, it did not: Blue & White endorsed its own leader, Benny Gantz, for prime minister.

Bigger surprises were in store.

The next in line after Blue & White was the Joint List alliance, which endorsed Mr Gantz too — this time unanimously, unlike after last September’s election when the Arab-nationalist Balad party had abstained.

Then, six hours later, Avigdor Lieberman arrived with his Yisrael Beitenu colleagues and delivered the coup de grace: an endorsement of Mr Gantz, reversing last time’s abstention.

Mr Gantz now has an opportunity to try and form a government over the next month.

The same problem remains: Yisrael Beitenu and the Joint List will not sit in the same government under any circumstances, but they are already cooperating de facto.

The opposition, now with a rare majority, will start to exert pressure on Mr Netanyahu.

They will first try to take control of parliamentary business by voting for a new speaker and appointing oversight committees, and then move legislation preventing a politician facing criminal indictments from forming a government.

But Mr Netanyahu is not backing down and his loyal, outgoing Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein has sworn to try and block the opposition.

But this is the biggest challenge he is facing to his rule in the past 11 years and it seems that the excuse of having to fight coronavirus is not cutting it.

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