US President Donald Trump called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday to congratulate him that he’ll be forming Israel’s next government, the Prime Minister’s Office said.
The call came a day after Netanyahu closed in on a unity government with rival Benny Gantz.
“The president of the United States telephoned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and congratulated him that he will form and head the next government,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.
“During the conversation, which was warm and friendly, the leaders discussed the various steps needed to deal with the spread of the coronavirus pandemic,” the statement said.
The White House said in a statement that Trump and Netanyahu “discussed the latest developments on the coronavirus pandemic, and the president thanked the prime minister for his strong action to stop its spread.”
“The two leaders agreed to cooperate closely to combat the virus and minimize its global impact,” The White House statement said, without mentioning the premiership.
As things formally stand, it is Gantz who has been charged by President Reuven Rivlin with forming Israel’s next government, having been recommended as prime minister by 61 MKs. But the anticipated unity deal would see Netanyahu stay on as prime minister for the next 18 months, at which point he would hand over to Gantz, in a “rotation” deal that many observers believe will not play out.
Since the March 2 election, in which Netanyahu’s Likud party won the most seats but his right-wing bloc fell three seats shy of forming a majority coalition, only Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had phoned the premier to offer congratulations.
After elections in April 2019, which Netanyahu initially appeared to have won but ultimately proved unable to form a coalition, Trump called the Likud leader the next day from Air Force One with congratulations.
Gantz was handed the mandate to form a government on March 16, but appeared to have no clear path to forging a stable coalition. Both he and Netanyahu, who has run Israel for over a decade but is facing criminal charges, had publicly touted the need for a national emergency unity government in light of the coronavirus crisis, but neither had appeared to make any meaningful steps toward that goal before a Wednesday night phone call between the two.
Gantz was elected Knesset speaker Thursday evening as part of the emerging unity deal.
According to the reported pact taking shape, Gantz is set to partner with Netanyahu in a unity coalition, serving initially as foreign or defense minister and then taking over as prime minister in September or October 2021.
Furious at Gantz’s move, and accusing him of stealing the votes of their supporters and handing them to Netanyahu, the Yesh Atid and Telem factions filed a formal request to break away from Gantz late on Thursday afternoon, leaving only Gantz’s Israel Resilience faction to join forces with Netanyahu’s Likud. Lapid had reportedly told Gantz he preferred that Israel go to fourth elections than see Blue and White partner with Netanyahu.
Gantz and his Blue and White colleagues had vowed through election campaigns in the past year not to sit in a government with Netanyahu so long as he is facing criminal charges. But Gantz said Thursday and Friday that the pandemic and the electoral deadlock necessitated atypical behavior to drag Israel out of crisis. (The prime minister’s trial was supposed to begin on March 17 but has been postponed to May amid the coronavirus-related emergency restrictions that have shut down most Israeli court activity.)
Gantz is expected to resign the speakership after a unity government is formed, to be replaced by a Likud MK, potentially even the previous Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein, who refused to carry out a Supreme Court order to hold a vote on who would succeed him, and resigned.