With less than an hour before court-mandated voting was to take place, Blue & White leader Benny Gantz on Thursday afternoon submitted his candidacy for Knesset speaker.
The move apparently threatened to tear apart Gantz's own Blue & White party, which includes a sizable faction from Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party. Gantz's candidacy did however win the support of Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing bloc, hinting at a unity government in the works.
Blue & White had been expected to tap former Dimona mayor and close Lapid ally Meir Cohen for the role. Sources said Lapid was threatening to split the party over the move.
According to Channel 12, Gantz sources said that an agreement with Likud on a unity government had not been reached, but appointing Cohen would have made such an option an impossibility.
The Blue & White alliance comprises Gantz's own Israel Resilience party, Yesh Atid and former defense minister Moshe Ya'alon's Telem. The three party heads comprise the leadership of Blue & White along with Gabi Ashkenazi, who like Gantz and Ya'alon is a former head of the IDF.
The High Court of Justice ordered the vote for a parliamentary speaker to be held on Thursday afternoon during a showdown with a Netanyahu ally, a move that could threaten the prime minister's long hold on power.
In what the court called an unprecedented challenge of its authority by a public official, current speaker Yuli Edelstein had disobeyed its order to hold an election for the post - a vote he was set to lose. Instead, he quit on Wednesday.
Attacking Edelstein's defiance but stopping short of penalizing him in a contempt hearing, the court empowered Labor leader Amir Peretz to hold a vote for the speaker's post later in the day.
Edelstein belongs to Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, and his resignation removed a potential obstacle to opposition plans to pass a law barring the prime minister, as an indicted suspect in three corruption cases, from forming a new government following a March 2 national election.
Amid a deep political stalemate, no government has been formed to replace a caretaker administration. But the main opposition Blue & White, controls a slim majority of 61 of the Knesset's parliament's 120 seats.
Gantz's 28-day presidential mandate to establish a governing coalition expires in a little over two weeks, when Netanyahu could get the nod.
Under law, Gantz could ask for a two-week extension but after three inconclusive national elections in less than a year, he might not get one.
Edelstein had cited the coronavirus crisis and pursuit of Netanyahu's call for a "national emergency government" with Gantz as valid reasons for postponing the election for speaker in the newly sworn-in parliament. He said he was acting as a matter of conscience.
In a decision released on Thursday, Chief Justice Esther Hayut said Edelstein's disobedience of the rule of law set a bad example for ordinary Israelis faced with restrictions on their movement to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Netanyahu, who has denied charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, has made no comment on the controversy. But some Likud members accused the court of undermining democracy in forcing a Knesset vote.
First published: 12:02, 03.26.20