Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for the formation of an emergency government to confront a growing crisis over the coronavirus, offering a potential way out of the deadlock that has paralysed the political system for the past year.
Mr Netanyahu made the offer in a nationally televised address on Thursday, saying the virus does “not differentiate” between Jews and non-Jews or between the political left and right.
“I call for the formation now, even this evening, of a national emergency government,” he said.
“It will be an emergency government for a limited period. Together, we will fight to save the lives of citizens,” he added, saying that politics should be put aside.
His rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, said he was willing to discuss the possibility of a national unity government and that his party would do “everything in our power to see it move forward".
The conciliatory language marked a sharp change after months of acrimonious campaigning and heightened rhetoric in the wake of another inconclusive election earlier this month.
Israel has witnessed a rise in coronavirus cases in recent days, with 131 people infected as of Friday.
The country has imposed a number of tough restrictions to slow the spread of the virus, placing tens of thousands of people under home quarantine, ordering all Israelis who return from overseas to quarantine themselves and barring almost all tourists from entering the country.
Mr Netanyahu said schools and universities would be closed until the end of the Passover holiday in mid-April, with the exception of preschools, boarding schools and special education facilities.
Israel's Health Ministry has barred all gatherings of more than 100 people.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
More than 128,000 people in more than 110 countries have been infected. The vast majority are in just four countries: China and South Korea – where new cases are declining – and Iran and Italy, where they are not. More than 4,700 people have died worldwide.
This month's election was Israel's third to end in deadlock in the past year.
Mr Netanyahu's Likud emerged as the single largest party but fell short of securing the majority in parliament required to form a government.
Although a slight majority of legislators oppose Mr Netanyahu, they are deeply divided on other issues. Mr Gantz, of the centrist Blue and White party, also appears to lack enough support to form a government.
A unity government between the two large parties would be the most straightforward way out of the crisis.
But after three contentious campaigns, there is great animosity between the two leaders, and it remains unclear who would lead a unity government. Still, the growing coronavirus threat may be the spark that brings the sides together.
Mr Gantz has previously ruled out a partnership with Mr Netanyahu, citing the prime minister's upcoming trial on corruption charges, which is set to begin next week.
Mr Netanyahu has insisted that he lead any unity government.
Citing the urgent health crisis, Mr Gantz appeared to be open to compromise
“Given the circumstances, we are willing to discuss the possibility of establishing a broad national unity government, reflective of the entire Israeli public,” he said in a statement late on Thursday.
“We will do everything in our power to see it move forward for the sake of the state of Israel and its citizens.”