Netanyahu, Gantz discuss creation of emergency unity government
Coronavirus crisis

Netanyahu, Gantz discuss creation of emergency unity government

Likud leader says inclusion of terror supporters — apparent reference to Arab-led Joint List — out of bounds even in midst of pandemic, signaling gaps may remain

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Ministers office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Ministers office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The leaders of the Likud and Blue and White parties spoke by phone late Thursday to discuss the possibility of setting up an emergency government, as they sought to put differences aside in order to effectively manage the coronavirus crisis sweeping the country and the globe.

Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz expressed support for a unity coalition given the circumstances, but it was unclear if the two had come together regarding the inclusion of the Joint List of Arab-majority parties.

Both said earlier in the evening 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 told Gantz late Thursday that the two should begin talks on setting up a government immediately, according to Hebrew media reports early Friday, saying that leadership was needed given the threat.

However he added 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.

In a short statement sent out by a spokesperson early Friday, Gantz said he had urged Netanyahu to have teams from each party begin negotiations as early as Thursday night “to look into the creation of a broad, national, emergency government in order to battle the spread of coronavirus.”

“I informed him, that in any case, I plan to help out any activity related to the good of the public on this subject,” he added.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz holds a press conference at Kfar Maccabia on March 7 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Gantz earlier 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 Joint List.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh earlier on Thursday called out Netanyahu for continuing to “incite against 20 percent of the population during a global health crisis,” referring to the country’s Arab minority.

“There is not a single hospital staff with a Jewish majority. If we can save lives, we can also make decisions,” he added in a tweet.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh casts his vote during elections in Haifa, Israel, March 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

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.

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.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz have at times spoken of the idea of winning the “Jewish majority” in the election, a deeply controversial idea that discounts the votes of Arabs and other minorities.

Netanyahu on Thursday used a prime-time televised address from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem to call on the centrist Blue and White party to form a national unity government and temporarily put the political deadlock to the side.

“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 a 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.

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

Israel has leveled a series of increasingly drastic measures restricting public gatherings and travel in an effort to stanch the spread of the virus, which has killed thousands, mostly in China.

A man having a fever test as he arrives to a press conference at the Prime Ministers office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Some 31,000 Israelis were in quarantine after traveling or coming into contact with people confirmed to be carrying the disease as of Wednesday evening, according to the Health Ministry.

Other party leaders have said they will support the creation of a national unity government and a freeze on politics as usual until the crisis is brought under control.

Defense Minister and Yamina party head 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 Bennett, a Netanyahu ally. “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].”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony marking 24 years since the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the Knesset on November 10, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

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.

Before the crisis, Gantz had adamantly refused to join a government headed by Netanyahu as long as he is under indictment.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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