Rivlin hosts Gantz, Netanyahu to talk up emergency unity government
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Rivlin hosts Gantz, Netanyahu to talk up emergency unity government

Three-way summit held by the president comes after he said he would task the Blue and White leader with forming a coalition following recommendations by a majority of MKs

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

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Reuven Rivlin, center, and Benny Gantz, meeting in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Reuven Rivlin, center, and Benny Gantz, meeting in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

President Reuven Rivlin hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chair Benny Gantz for an “urgent” three-way summit Sunday evening in an effort to encourage the two men to form an emergency unity government amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The hour-long meeting, held at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, began with Netanyahu and Gantz each elbow-bumping Rivlin in accordance with instructions to avoid handshaking to stop the spread of the virus.

Signifying his intention to being negotiations immediately, Rivlin also invited the heads of the Likud and Blue and White negotiating teams to be present in the meeting,

Following the meeting, Netanyahu and Gantz released a joint statement saying that they had both “thanked the president of the state for inviting them to the joint meeting” and that “the two agreed that negotiating teams would meet soon.”

In a separate statement, Rivlin’s office said, “The president emphasized that [Gantz and Netanyahu] should continue and intensify direct contacts between them and between the Likud and Blue and White negotiating teams, and welcomed both sides’ willingness to do so. At the end of the meeting, the two sides agreed that the negotiating teams of the two parties will continue the discussions.”

Benjamin Netanyahu, right, elbow bumps Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu went public with a pair of alternative offers for a unity government with Gantz, urging the de facto opposition chairman to choose either to serve under him in a six-month emergency government or replace him after two years as part of a four-year rotational coalition.

Rivlin, after September’s election, proposed a unity government between the two, with Netanyahu serving as prime minister for some six months before being replaced by Gantz. While both had a stab at forming a government, neither succeeded, leading to the elections in March, the third in under a year.

Benny Gantz, right, elbow bumps with Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Rivlin’s proposal this time is based on the previous offer, but gives Netanyahu a full year as prime minister before handing the baton to Gantz, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

Immediately before the Sunday evening meeting, Rivlin announced that he will task Gantz with forming a government after the Blue and White leader received the endorsement of a majority of Knesset members.

His announcement came shortly after Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman joined the Joint List and Labor-Gesher-Meretz parties in endorsing Gantz for prime minister. With the nod given by Liberman during consultations with Rivlin, Gantz picked up 61 of 120 recommendations, compared to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 58 endorsements.

Netanyahu’s Likud won 36 Knesset seats in the March election compared to Blue and White’s 33, but the Likud leader’s right-wing bloc again failed to muster a parliamentary majority.

Once a close ally of Netanyahu’s Likud, the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu has refused to join a coalition led by Netanyahu, after the previous two rounds of elections. Liberman in April 2019 backed Netanyahu for premier; he refrained from endorsing either candidate after the September vote.

Liberman’s backing for Gantz marked an unlikely alliance between the hawkish ex-defense minister, who has long condemned Arab lawmakers as “terrorist sympathizers,” and the predominantly Arab Joint List, with both aiming to unseat Netanyahu.

President Reuven Rivlin hosts Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, March 15, 2020 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

As of last week, Gantz’s only realistic path to a coalition appeared to be a center-left minority government backed on the outside by the Joint List, a controversial prospect that before the election the centrist leader vowed he would not pursue. Vocal opposition by rightist members of Blue and White, MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, along with Labor-Gesher-Meretz’s Orly Levy-Abekasis, who vowed to vote against a minority government, appeared to reduce the likelihood of that scenario.

Opening the consultations, which were being held with limited representation from each party and no press due to limitations on gatherings of over 10 people, Rivlin said that efforts to deal with the outbreak must not come “at the expense of Israeli democracy.”

“We are committed, more than ever, in light of the urgent need for a government, to hold essential democratic processes, even in a time of crisis,” Rivlin declared.

“These are not normal consultations; we need to work to form a government as soon as possible,” he warned.

The number of Israelis diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, rose to 200 on Sunday morning. The Health Ministry said two of the sick remained in serious condition, with 11 in moderate condition and the rest suffering light symptoms only.

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