Israel's Netanyahu notches key wins in a deal with his rival

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FILE - In this Feb. 23, 2020 file photo, people walk past an election campaign billboard for the Blue and White party, the opposition party led by Benny Gantz, left, in Ramat Gan, Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party is pictured at right. Netanyahu and Gantz announced Monday, April 20, 2020, that they have forged a deal to form an emergency government. The deal between the Likud Party and the Blue and White ends months of political paralysis and averts what would have been a fourth consecutive election in just over a year. Terms of the agreement werent immediately announced. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

JERUSALEM – Israel’s embattled prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has notched two critical victories in this week’s power-sharing agreement with his chief rival: He can stay in office throughout his upcoming corruption trial, and he can press forward with a potentially explosive plan to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank.

Netanyahu and former military chief Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White Party, announced their “national emergency government” late Monday, ending 16 months of political paralysis and narrowly averting an unprecedented fourth national election in just over a year.

The emergency government’s stated mission is to steer the country through the coronavirus crisis, which has killed over 180 Israelis and put a quarter of the country out of work. But after a bruising period of prolonged political stalemate, both men also appear to have been driven toward each other by their deepest survival instincts.

Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to rotate 18-month terms as prime minister, and they have evenly divided key government ministries and parliamentary committees. In effect, each side will be able to veto the other's actions.

Commentator Sima Kadmon said the coronavirus crisis served as the pretext for the unlikely alliance. "The real goal was Netanyahu’s effort to buy time,” she wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily.

An early test for the alliance will be an issue close to Netanyahu's heart: the annexation of large parts of the West Bank. Such a move would destroy any lingering hopes of establishing an independent Palestinian state and draw widespread international condemnation.

Netanyahu and his pro-settler base see an opportunity under the friendly administration of President Donald Trump who seeks re-election in November. Although their government is to focus on coronavirus issues for its first six months, Netanyahu persuaded Gantz to allow him to raise annexation plans in the Cabinet from July 1.

Netanyahu could still face some obstacles. The deal says any move would require U.S. support and need to take into account the opinions of key allies. Gantz has given annexation only lukewarm support. But the vague language of their deal allows Netanyahu to present the proposal to parliament — where he appears to have majority support for the idea — even without Gantz's backing.