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Netanyahu rival seeks support from PM's party to form government

Israel edges closer to third general election in year amid political stalemate

Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, delivers a statement in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Saturday. Reuters
Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, delivers a statement in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Saturday. Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rival, Benny Gantz, on Saturday urged leaders of the premier's Likud party to join him in government after their chief's indictment on corruption charges.

"In light of the circumstances, I call for the formation of the largest possible government under my leadership," Mr Gantz said. "I would be the prime minister for the first two years."

And if Mr Netanyahu "is cleared he could return and become prime minister", Mr Gantz said.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced on Thursday that he had charged Mr Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, putting his decade-long tenure in doubt.

Israel edged closer to its third general election in a year, after two inconclusive polls in April and September.

On Wednesday Mr Gantz, a former army general whose centrist party gained one more seat than Likud in the September poll, said he could not form a government and secure a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

Mr Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White coalition, was asked to form a government by President Reuven Rivlin after Mr Netanyahu failed to do so.

It was his first concrete offer to extract Israel from its political impasse since the charges against Mr Netanyahu, who is still interim premier, were announced.

Parliament now has less than three weeks to find a candidate who can gain the support of more than half of the Knesset's members, or an unpopular third election will be called.

Mr Gantz said in Tel Aviv that his proposal was "the only alternative to holding new elections".

Under Israeli law, while ministers cannot remain in place after being indicted, a prime minister is not legally required to resign unless convicted and with all appeals processes exhausted.

In addition to the premiership, Mr Netanyahu leads ministries including agriculture and health, which he may have to vacate in coming days.

Mr Netanyahu, the first Israeli prime minister to be indicted in office on corruption charges, has denounced a "coup" against him, dismissed the charges as "false" and "politically motivated" and vowed to hold on to power.

Investigators have not identified the informants who provided the tips about alleged corruption by the veteran conservative nicknamed "King Bibi".

But they methodically called on members of the prime minister's inner circle to be state witnesses against him.

The mounting evidence was revealed in leaks that undercut what prosecutors claim was Mr Netanyahu's scheme to control his public image by giving favours to news companies for positive coverage.

Israel's Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, was chosen by Mr Netanyahu in 2016 after having served as his Cabinet secretary since 2013.

"I had the privilege of working with him and witnessing his many talents and capabilities as prime minister," Mr Mandelblit said in announcing the charges.

"The decision to file an indictment against him was made with a heavy heart."

Mr Mandelblit launched an inquiry in July 2016. Investigators soon focused on dealings between the prime minister, Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer.

The inquiries led to Case 1,000, in which Mr Netanyahu was charged with fraud and breach of trust for allegedly requesting and receiving gifts from Mr Packer and Mr Milchan, which included a regular supply of cigars and champagne.

The indictment says Mr Netanyahu helped Mr Milchan with various business interests.

Mr Milchan and Mr Packer provided testimony and have not been charged with any wrongdoing.

In an investigation of Mr Netanyahu's former chief of staff, Ari Harow, secret recordings made on his mobile phone were found.

They documented a series of meetings between two men who were then known publicly as enemies: Mr Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, the owner of Israel's best-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, and the popular news website Ynet.

Mr Netanyahu said on Thursday that relations between politicians and the media were common, but he was being singled out.

"They weren't after the truth," Mr Netanyahu said of police and prosecutors. "They were after me."

Mr Mandelblit rejected the accusations.

Updated: November 24, 2019 11:46 PM

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