Coronavirus offers Benjamin Netanyahu a way out of Israel's political deadlock

Proposal for emergency unity government plays on coronavirus fears and election fatigue

Israeli Prime Minister and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu reacts after delivering a statement in Petah Tikva, Saturday, March 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cited the coronavirus threat to call for an emergency national government, a political manoeuvre that would allow him to end a post-election political deadlock and sideline the Arab bloc despite its success.

With no clear path to a ruling coalition after Israel’s third election in less than a year, politicians are under mounting pressure to form a government while Mr Netanyahu is just days away from going on trial for alleged corruption.

Politicians started deal-making while the votes of Israelis in quarantine were still being counted after the March 2 election, negotiating alliances before President Reuven Rivlin meets party leaders on Sunday to pick a premier.

Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party picked up the most seats, 36, but his right-wing bloc stands three seats short of a governing majority in the 120-seat Knesset. The centrist Blue and White party won 33, prompting its leader Benny Gantz to try to piece together an alliance backed by the 15 legislators of the Arab-led Joint List.

The Blue and White leader had appeared on track to clinch a landmark agreement with Arab-Israeli politicians, rejecting the protests of a handful of his allies, when Mr Netanyahu made his surprise proposal.

In a televised speech on Thursday, Mr Netanyahu called for “an emergency government for a limited time” to combat the spread of the coronavirus, leaving Mr Gantz with little choice but to discuss the proposal as the electorate confronts measures such as school closures.

“Given the circumstances, we are willing to discuss the possibility of establishing a broad national emergency government, reflective of the entire Israeli public,” Mr Gantz responded.

The remark indicated he would not entirely abandon the Joint List, representing Arab-Israelis who make up about 20 per cent of the population. In the face of ongoing anti-Arab rhetoric from Mr Netanyahu, Palestinian citizens of Israel turned out in greater numbers at the latest election with impressive results.

As the third-largest bloc in parliament, including Israel’s first hijab-wearing Knesset member, the Joint List has clear goals including scrapping discriminatory laws and tackling crime and violence within Arab communities.

“We strive to achieve complete civil and national equality for the Arab society in Israel,” said Joint List member of parliament Heba Yazbak.

She said the Joint List was still deciding whether to recommend Mr Gantz as premier, as it did after the previous election in September.

"One of our main goals is to prevent Netanyahu from forming a government, but we don't just want to replace the person. We want to change the policy," she told The National.

“We hope our great achievement in these elections would translate into a meaningful improvement in all aspects of civil life.”

Blue and White party members Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, as well as Orly Levy-Abekasis from a small opposition alliance, have opposed forming even a minority government with Joint List support but their stance failed to garner wider support.

After Mr Netanyahu pushed for a unity government, a Blue and White spokeswoman affirmed the Joint List would not be included in any administration.

The Arab alliance could be "part of the joint efforts to cope with the coronavirus", she told The National without elaborating.

Avigdor Lieberman, courted by both sides for the seven seats won by his Yisrael Beiteinu party, said he would support an emergency coalition.

But with or without the involvement of the Joint List, it remains to be seen whether Mr Gantz and Mr Netanyahu are capable of forming a unity government. The proposal was on the table after September’s inconclusive election, but the Likud leader demanded he hold the rotating premiership first.

Mr Gantz, meanwhile, refused to serve under a prime minister embroiled in a corruption scandal. Mr Netanyahu has since been indicted and is due to stand trial on Tuesday, after failing to have the court date postponed.

While Israelis are divided over whether Mr Netanyhau’s latest proposal is intended to save the country or himself, few want the political stalemate to spill over into a fourth election.

After “an exhausting year of elections”, Israel’s president said he welcomed any initiative which will lead to a government. Suggesting that Israeli-Arabs should not be excluded from the process, Mr Rivlin said on Wednesday that in Israel “there are deep disagreements, but no semi-citizens”.