JERUSALEM • Mr Benny Gantz, the centrist former army chief battling to depose Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has won the endorsements of a narrow majority of lawmakers, earning him a fresh chance to form a government and break the country's year-long political deadlock.
Sunday's surprise majority for Mr Gantz, 60, who earned the backing both of Arab lawmakers often accused of sympathising with terrorists and from ultra-nationalist lawmakers often called rabidly anti-Arab, puts him in a stronger-than-expected position to try to pry loose Mr Netanyahu's 11-year grip on power.
Israel's President Reuven Rivlin yesterday formally assigned Mr Gantz, of the Blue and White party, the mandate to form a government.
At a televised ceremony, Mr Rivlin gave Mr Gantz 28 days, with the option of a two-week extension, to assemble a ruling coalition.
"I give you my word, I will do all in my ability to establish within a few days as broad and patriotic a government as possible," Mr Gantz said at the nomination ceremony, without going into details.
Mr Rivlin had earlier on Sunday night summoned Mr Gantz and Mr Netanyahu, 70, to his residence for an "urgent conversation" about the possibility of bringing their parties together in a national unity government to contend with the emergency posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
After about 90 minutes, Mr Gantz and Mr Netanyahu emerged and promised that their aides would continue the talks.
The momentous goings-on came on an extraordinarily tumultuous day.
With much of the country grinding to a halt or stuck at home, Israeli citizens were still absorbing the news of the draconian measures that Mr Netanyahu's caretaker government was considering to fight the spreading coronavirus, including an idea to deploy secret surveillance tools now used to hunt terrorists to identify people who should be quarantined.
Then, early on Sunday, came word that the court system had been effectively shut down in a middle-of-the-night decree by Mr Netanyahu's hand-picked justice minister and that, a few hours later, Mr Netanyahu's criminal trial on bribery and other corruption charges, which was set to open today, had been pushed back at least until late May.
The unexpected postponement set off a wave of criticism from Mr Netanyahu's opponents.
"We have the Italian mafia here, and how," Mr Yariv Oppenheimer, a former director of Peace Now, wrote on Twitter.
"Courts and parliamentary operations must not be suspended, even in emergencies," said Mr Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the left-wing Meretz party.
Mr Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister, is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three cases in which prosecutors say he traded lucrative official favours with Israeli media tycoons who rewarded him with expensive gifts and with obsequiously positive news coverage.
He failed on March 2 to win a new term outright after falling short again of a majority in parliamentary elections, the third inconclusive ballot in less than a year.
Anti-Netanyahu forces led by Mr Gantz won a slim majority in Parliament, but until a government is formed, Mr Netanyahu's holdover coalition of right-wing and religious parties remains in charge.
In a first, all 15 members of the combined slate of predominantly Arab parties, the Joint List, joined lawmakers from several Jewish parties in recommending Mr Gantz to Mr Rivlin.
Leaving the President's residence on Sunday, Mr Ayman Odeh, the Joint List's leader, said it had recommended Mr Gantz in part out of concern for Israeli democracy. "We see fascism in the regime," he told reporters, "not in the society, but in the one who heads the government, Benjamin Netanyahu."
Among the Jewish parties backing Mr Gantz was the seven-seat, ultra-nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Mr Avigdor Liberman, a one-time ally of Mr Netanyahu who has now made it his mission to end the prime minister's career.