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Netanyahu rival calls for coalition deal ahead of deadline

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s main opposition leader urged its long-serving prime minister on Monday to seal a coalition deal ahead of a looming midnight deadline or risk dragging the country toward unprecedented fourth straight elections in just over a year amid the coronavirus outbreak.

With the country embroiled in more than a year of political stalemate, Benny Gantz, the former military chief and head of the Blue and White party, delivered a stern message to Benjamin Netanyahu, pleading with him to finalize what appeared to be promising coalition talks that have faltered in recent days.

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“Netanyahu, this is our moment of truth. It’s either an emergency national government or, heaven forbid, expensive and unnecessary fourth elections during a crisis. History will not forgive either of us if we run away,” he said.

In a tweet shortly after, Netanyahu invited Gantz to his residence to “meet and sign this evening” on a deal.

The men were meeting late Monday. After the midnight deadline passed, there was no word from either side.

Israel last month held its third straight election in less than a year, after the previous two ended inconclusively. While the March 2 vote also ended with no clear winner, Gantz was tasked by Israel’s ceremonial president with forming a government and had until midnight Monday to do so.

If he fails, Israel’s Knesset will have three weeks to select a candidate for prime minister. And if that too doesn’t succeed, Israel will head to extraordinary fourth polls in just over a year.

With the country led by a caretaker government and hobbled by legislative paralysis since the first election was called in late 2018, a fourth vote would extend the political crisis at a time when the country is dealing with its coronavirus outbreak.

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Gantz and Netanyahu have throughout the repeated campaigns professed an eagerness for unity, but Gantz had said he refused to sit under Netanyahu in a government so long as he faces corruption charges.

But, driven by the urgency of the coronavirus crisis, the rivals agreed last month to enter what appeared to be fruitful talks on a power-sharing agreement between the ruling Likud Party and Gantz’s Blue White.

What seemed to be nearly a done deal last week stumbled over disagreements reportedly over a demand by Netanyahu, who faces an impending corruption trial, to have more influence over judicial appointments.

On Sunday, Israel’s figurehead president, who oversees the coalition-building process, rejected Gantz’s request for a two-week extension for negotiations. The decision in effect gave the sides an ultimatum to reach a deal by midnight.

Each of the three elections has been a referendum on Netanyahu, who has portrayed himself as the consummate statesman while trying to play down the charges against him as cooked up by a liberal media and a judicial system out to get him. He denies wrongdoing on charges of accepting bribes, breach of trust and fraud.

The coronavirus crisis has provided the long-serving leader with a lifeline. He has helmed the country’s response, positioning himself as a capable, tested leader who has worked his international connections to steer Israel through the crisis. While Netanyahu came up short in previous rounds, that polished image could boost his fortunes in a fourth election.

Israel has more than 11,500 cases of the virus and 116 dead, but it appears to be weathering the crisis better than many countries.

Gantz, who had vowed never to sit in a government under Netanyahu, broke that promise amid concerns over the coronavirus last month.

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The opposition leader froze planned anti-Netanyahu legislation and accepted the post of parliament speaker as he began talks on a rotation agreement in which both men would serve as prime minister. The turnabout prompted Gantz’s main partner — the secular and middle-class Yesh Atid party — to bolt, causing his Blue and White alliance to disintegrate and leaving it at less than half its original strength.

If he doesn’t succeed in clinching a deal Monday, Gantz does not have the backing of a majority of legislators, and his public support is expected to dwindle in a fourth vote, leaving the once formidable challenger to Netanyahu desperate to finalize a deal.

Netanyahu is backed by 59 lawmakers, two short of a majority in the 120-seat parliament. But he may seek to lure defectors from other parties to give him the number he needs to be tapped as prime minister-designate.