Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said on Friday that the formation of an emergency unity government to deal with the burgeoning coronavirus crisis “is the right thing for the State of Israel at this time,” but that he is currently waiting for an answer from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on beginning negotiations.
On Thursday evening, Netanyahu reached out to his political rivals to form an emergency government to fight the spread of the virus, inviting Gantz for talks. In a prime-time televised speech from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, the premier called on the Blue and White leader to take the step following a year-long political deadlock during which neither has succeeded in forming a governing coalition.
“It would be an emergency government for a limited time, and we will fight together to save the lives of tens of thousands of citizens,” Netanyahu said in his statement to the press, during which he issued dire warnings of a high potential death toll from the virus and announced that Israeli schools would be shut down starting Friday.
Gantz subsequently said he was willing to discuss an emergency government, but added that it would have to include elements from all political sides, an implication that he would insist on the inclusion of the majority-Arab Joint List.
Writing in a Facebook post on Friday afternoon, Gantz said that Blue and White “intends to join the fight against the coronavirus, just as we have always enlisted for the State of Israel. Since the outbreak of the crisis, we have given full backing to the government’s actions and so we will continue to do so, whatever the political circumstances.”
But turning to the possibility of a unity government, Gantz, knocking the prime minister for “addressing me via the media, as usual,” said he had not received a serious response to his request to begin formal negotiations.
“In a conversation I had with him after [his address], I told him that we would continue to back every move [aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus in Israel] and I suggested that our negotiating teams meet and discuss the need and possibility of establishing a broad emergency government for the forthcoming period,” Gantz said.
“So far I have not received a serious reply from him. I am still waiting — because an emergency government is the right thing for the State of Israel at this time,” he said.
Sources close to Gantz told the Ynet news site that the issue of a unity government was not progressing as Blue and White was demanding a meeting of negotiating teams before any one-on-one between the leaders to see what Netanyahu was offering, while Likud said it wanted an immediate meeting between the two party chiefs.
In another possible reference to including the Joint List in the emergency unity government, Gantz also wrote Friday that,”A government [Netanyahu] defined as one that fights the virus that does not distinguish between right and left, between religious and secular, and between Jews and Arabs.
Netanyahu reportedly told Gantz in their Thursday conversation that “terror supporters cannot be part of the government — not in regular times or in an emergency,” using a term often employed by his party to tar the Joint List or elements within the alliance.
Gantz, since elections last week, 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.
As neither Likud nor Blue and White mustered a majority of Knesset seats in the March 2 election, 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.
Previously, Gantz had refused to sit in a government with Netanyahu due to the corruption charges facing the prime minister.
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 his 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.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.