Gantz says coronavirus above politics, calls to mobilize IDF to manage crisis

Gantz says coronavirus above politics, calls to mobilize IDF to manage crisis

Blue and White leader: ‘We need to be in a heightened state of alert and preparedness, but need not spiral into national hysteria’

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Leader of Israel's Blue and White electoral alliance Benny Gantz speaks during a press conference in the southern Israeli town of Sderot on the border with Gaza on February 24, 2020. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)
Leader of Israel's Blue and White electoral alliance Benny Gantz speaks during a press conference in the southern Israeli town of Sderot on the border with Gaza on February 24, 2020. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

As he continued efforts to form a government following last week’s inconclusive elections, Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz said on Thursday that the burgeoning coronavirus crisis must be placed above politics and that his party “will support every appropriate measure” aimed at tackling the fallout from the virus.

While praising the Health Ministry for its conduct in recent days, he said that it was time to step up Israel’s response and use various branches of the Israel Defense Forces to tackle some of the problems caused by the virus.

“The coronavirus crisis in the State of Israel is only just beginning,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “Let me be clear: I, along with the rest of Blue and White, will support every appropriate measure to help the country contend with this crisis and get out of it as quickly as possible, while saving lives and limiting the damage to the Israeli economy and the Israeli people.”

The Health Ministry on Thursday announced multiple new cases of Israelis found to be carrying the coronavirus, as the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country climbed to 109.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov, center and Health minister Yaakov Litzman at a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Prime Ministers office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

Gantz said that “to address this crisis, the State of Israel needs to mobilize every means and resources at its disposal. We need to take full advantage of the public bodies with the tools to handle this crisis.”

To curb the spread of the virus in the country, all Israelis returning from overseas are required to quarantine at home for 14 days. Non-Israeli nationals will be allowed into the country until Thursday at 8 p.m., but after that they will be barred entry unless they can demonstrate an ability to self-quarantine for two weeks.

The quarantine measures are among the most dramatic to be introduced by any nation in the intensifying battle against the coronavirus. On February 26, Israel had become the first country in the world to advise its citizens against all non-essential overseas travel.

Meanwhile, the National Security Council and the education and health ministries were holding deliberations Thursday on whether to order the closure of elementary, middle and high schools throughout the country to contain the spread of the coronavirus. According to multiple reports, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to announce a complete closure of all Israeli schools later Thursday evening.

Gantz said Israel’s government institutions had acted well so far, but that more must be done.

Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov attends a press conference about the coronavirus, at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem on March 8, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I have the utmost appreciation for the professionals at the Health Ministry, headed by the director general, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov. That said, this moment calls for leveraging the organizational capabilities of the Defense Ministry and the [Israel Defense Forces] as well,” Gantz wrote.

“It is time to bring in the National Emergency Authority, the Homefront Command and the Medical Corps. We need to direct our full capacity, logistical means and existing systems toward adequately contending with a broad and continuing state of emergency. We need to be prepared for the possibility that we will need to use national infrastructure to move equipment, build isolation facilities and field hospitals, while also operating hotlines and offering guidance to the public on a large scale,” added Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff.

“We need to be in a heightened state of alert and preparedness, but need not spiral into national hysteria,” he said, “Blue and White, under my leadership, will support every appropriate measure, putting aside political considerations entirely, at this complex and sensitive time.”

Earlier Thursday, Shas chairman Aryeh Deri said the crisis required the immediate establishment of a “national emergency government” made up of the rival Likud and Blue and White parties.

“A national emergency government must be formed because of the coronavirus,” the interior minister told Army Radio, warning Blue and White “not to play games” while lives are at stake.

Neither Netanyahu’s Likud party nor Blue and White, headed by Gantz, mustered a majority of Knesset seats in last Monday’s election, and neither has a clear path to a majority coalition, even with the prime minister having the backing of 58 MKs and Likud being the largest party in the 120-seat Knesset.

Composite photo shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz, right. (Flash90)

Gantz, meanwhile, has been working to put together a minority government made up of Blue and White (33 seats), the hawkish Yisrael Beytenu (7 seats) and dovish Labor-Gesher-Meretz (7 seats), with most or all of the Arab lawmakers of the Joint List (15 seats) giving their support from outside the coalition.

Likud has attempted to portray the Joint List as out of bounds of Israeli politics, terming its members “terror supporters” and citing their opposition to Zionism and some extreme anti-Israel stances by members of Balad, one of the party’s constituent factions.

A minority coalition based on the support of the Joint List, while “not the government we wanted,” is the most responsible way to deal with the coronavirus crisis, Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid said Thursday morning in response to Deri’s call for a unity government.

“In the middle of the crisis, Netanyahu is the one dealing with petty politics,” Lapid said, alluding to the prime minister’s effort to remain in power despite his looming corruption trial. “He has no interest in a unity government. He has decided to go to fourth elections.”

Yair Lapid (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

Lapid said that Israel needs “a wide government to deal with this crisis” but that “the person who needs to lead it is someone who is not starting a trial next week.”

Netanyahu, in November, became Israel’s first sitting prime minister with charges against him, when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced he would indict him for bribery, fraud and breach of trust — though the charges were only filed officially in January, when the prime minister dropped a bid for Knesset immunity. Netanyahu denies the charges and claims he is the victim of an attempted “political coup” involving the opposition, media, police and state prosecutors.

His trial is set to begin next week, on March 17.

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