By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's main rival, Benny Gantz, was elected Speaker of parliament on Thursday in a surprise manoeuvre that could herald a unity government keeping the veteran leader in power.
With only the partial backing of his centrist Blue and White party and the support of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud, Gantz left many of his own political allies fuming over the smoothing of a path to partnership with a prime minister under criminal indictment.
The surprise twist in 48 hours of political drama plunged Blue and White in disarray. But Gantz's move kept open the possibility of a "rotation" deal in which he and Netanyahu would take turns as prime minister.
Each has insisted on going first, following three inconclusive national elections in less than a year.
Netanyahu has proposed a "national emergency" government with Gantz to help tackle the coronavirus crisis.
Israel's president, who enjoys wide public respect, had pressed them to join forces, with Israelis facing a possible national lockdown within days to try to lower infection rates.
"Israel is facing a growing number of (coronavirus)infections and the number of victims is rising daily," Gantz told parliament, accepting the speaker's gavel.
Gantz said he intended to advance towards a unity government, and that he had opted to put himself up for the Speaker's office to promote a deal.
Gantz had ruled out serving with Netanyahu, citing the prime minister's looming trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which he denies.
But Likud had threatened to abandon unity efforts if Blue and White's original candidate for Speaker, an opponent of a partnership with Netanyahu, was chosen in the newly sworn-in parliament.
Mired in political deadlock, the prospects of Gantz forming an administration on his own had appeared slim.
At least one member of Netanyahu's right-wing bloc, Defence Minister Naftali Bennett, publicly congratulated both Netanyahu and Gantz on a unity agreement, but there was no formal announcement that a deal had been reached.
(Editing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Nick Macfie)