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Israeli deadlock remains as new parliament opens

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Mandate: Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz bids for government. Photo: Nir Elias/Reuters

Mandate: Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz bids for government. Photo: Nir Elias/Reuters

REUTERS

Mandate: Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz bids for government. Photo: Nir Elias/Reuters

Israel swore in its newly elected parliament under stringent restrictions because of the coronavirus outbreak, in a surreal ceremony reflecting the country's unprecedented dual crisis in politics and public health.

Instead of the typical festive gathering of parliament's 120 members, the new lawmakers took the oath of office in 40 separate groups of three, in keeping with a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin presided over the unusual event after the Knesset, or parliament, was thoroughly sprayed with disinfectant.

The president, flanked by the Knesset speaker and secretary, opened the first session of parliament before a chamber empty save for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz. They sat several rows apart and made little eye contact, outnumbered by the three trumpeters in the hall who heralded the first session of parliament.

Mr Rivlin called for unity and compromise from the two leaders, saying Israeli people "are in need of rest, we are in need of healing" after three elections in less than a year.

After Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz were sworn in, they were ushered out of the hall and the lawmakers were brought in three-by-three for brief swearing-in ceremonies.

The event, two weeks after elections, gives the country a new legislature, but Israel still seems a long way from establishing a stable government.

Mr Rivlin yesterday formally designated Mr Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, the task of forming a coalition after the retired military chief secured a slim majority of recommendations from incoming lawmakers.

Mr Gantz promised to "do whatever it takes to form within as few days as possible a national, patriotic and broad government".

But beyond a joint desire to oust the long-time prime minister, Mr Gantz's supporters have little in common. The group is deeply divided along ideological lines and appears unlikely to band together for a government which could replace Mr Netanyahu, who faces serious legal troubles as he prepares to go on trial to face corruption charges.

Mr Netanyahu's Likud emerged as the largest party in the election but, along with his smaller religious and nationalist allies, he only has the support of 58 lawmakers, leaving his right-wing bloc three seats short of the required majority.

With the country's continued deadlock likely, and the prospect of yet another election seeming preposterous, Mr Rivlin summoned both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz to an emergency weekend meeting in the hope of cajoling them into a unity government.

Both have expressed openness to the concept amid a national sense of emergency surrounding the spread of the virus. But there is deep distrust between them after a nasty campaign, and they differ on who should lead such a government.

Although Mr Gantz's chances of forming a new government appear slim, receiving the "mandate" from Mr Rivlin could strengthen his position in unity talks with Mr Netanyahu.

During the transition period, his Blue and White party is expected to name one of its members as speaker of the parliament and to pass legislation which would prevent an indicted politician from forming a new government. That could bar Mr Netanyahu from leading the nation if there is a new election and push him toward compromise.

Irish Independent