By Rami Ayyub

TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Israel appeared headed for a unity government on Friday after opposition leader Benny Gantz moved towards an agreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, disappointing voters who had hoped to bring down the right-wing premier.

Gantz was elected parliamentary speaker on Thursday with support from Netanyahu's Likud and allied parties, angering many of his own partners over the possibility he could form an alliance with a leader who is under criminal indictment.

Gantz cited the coronavirus epidemic as the reason for his decision. Israel, with 3,000 cases of the disease and 10 deaths, is under partial lockdown.

The shock move splintered Gantz's centrist Blue and White coalition of three parties just 13 months after it came into existence as a grouping of Netanyahu opponents intent on bringing down Israel's longest-serving prime minister.

It also drew an angry response from some among the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who turned out to support Gantz's coalition in three elections in the past year. Some commentators accused the former general of caving in to Netanyahu.

"It makes me feel terrible. It's exactly what I did not want to happen, to see Gantz actually partner with Netanyahu," said Tami Golan, 46, who voted for Gantz in all three elections.

"I understand the coronavirus makes for a special situation, but I can't help but feel disappointed - we might not be done with Netanyahu," Golan said.

Gantz, 60, expressed regret on Friday his decision had split his centrist alliance but said dragging the country towards a fourth election would distract from fighting the coronavirus and aiding the economy.

"(We) will make every effort to establish a national emergency government. We will take care of the health crisis. We will lift the country out of economic trauma," Gantz wrote on his Facebook page.

At least one member of Gantz's own Israel Resilience party came out against him on Friday - a lawmaker from Israel's Arab Druze minority.

"A leader does not betray his principles and his electorate ... I will not sit one day under the corrupt (premier)," Gadeer Mreeh wrote on Twitter.

But with Netanyahu's coalition of right-wing parties needing only three more seats to reach a majority in the 120-member parliament, the early defection from Gantz's 15-strong faction was unlikely to put a dent in moves towards a unity government.

Indeed, U.S. President Donald Trump called his close ally Netanyahu on Friday to congratulate him "on the fact that he would form a government under his premiership," Netanyahu said on his Arabic-language Twitter account.

During the campaign for the March 2 election, Gantz had ruled out serving with Netanyahu, citing the prime minister's looming trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu denies the charges.

But Gantz has lacked enough support on the centre and left to form a coalition after being asked by President Reuven Rivlin to try to form a government following the election.

Netanyahu, 70, had proposed a unity government to tackle the coronavirus, promising to step down as prime minister within an agreed period, with Gantz then taking over.

Gantz's move on Thursday opened up the possibility of such a "rotation" deal, but there has been no formal announcement that such an agreement had been reached.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Frances Kerry and Toby Chopra)

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