Israel’s year-long political deadlock took a back seat to the growing health crisis on Thursday, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival, Benny Gantz, both said they were willing to begin negotiations on forming an emergency unity government to focus on fighting and containing the coronavirus pandemic that has crippled the country’s economy and public life.
Israel has had three elections in less than a year, with the latest vote last week seeming to yield yet another deadlock, seeing both Netanyahu and Gantz short of a parliamentary majority.
Netanyahu on Thursday evening 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 centrist Blue and White party, headed by Gantz, to take the step following a year-long political deadlock during which neither have 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,” he 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.
Earlier, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett made a similar call, saying he would support a law to freeze the political situation for six months and form an emergency government headed by Netanyahu.
“In six months we can return to where we were and continue debating,” said the Netanyahu ally, who heads the Yamina party. “No party will lose its power or its ability to negotiate. But the virus doesn’t discriminate on political lines, and that requires us to form a broad national unity [government].”
Netanyahu invited Gantz to meet him as early as Thursday night, reports said.
President Reuven Rivlin’s office said in a statement that he welcomes any initiative that would lead to the formation of a government as soon as possible, stressing that “my house is open to you.”
“We must do everything to focus on the tasks ahead of us,” he said, adding that the President’s Residence would be available to the parties as a place to meet and talk and that he was “ready to help in any way required in order to get to agreement as quickly as possible.”
Gantz subsequently said he was willing to discuss an emergency government, but added that it would have to include elements from all political sides.
“Blue and White, under my leadership, has thus far and will continue to back the common struggle against the coronavirus epidemic and its consequences,” Gantz wrote on Facebook. “In light of the situation, we will be willing to discuss the formation of a broad national unity government that would include representation of all parts of the house. We will make every effort to advance this step for the benefit of Israel’s citizens and the country.”
The mention of “representation of all parts of the house” was widely interpreted as a hint that Gantz would insist on the inclusion in an emergency government of the majority-Arab Joint List, whose members Netanyahu has long treated as pariahs.
Earlier Thursday, Gantz said 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 with some of the problems caused by the virus.
“The corona[virus] 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.
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.
Earlier Thursday, Shas chairman Aryeh Deri said the crisis required the immediate establishment of a “national emergency government” with Likud and Blue and White.
As neither Likud nor Blue and White mustered a majority of Knesset seats in last Monday’s 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.
Gantz, since the elections, 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.
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.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.