The Covid-19 coronavirus has pushed people apart as they fear transmission of the disease. Entire sports leagues have suspended their games, universities have canceled face-to-face courses, and concert venues have closed their doors. Yet, as most of the world is driven apart by Corvid-19, it has brought together two political sides in Israel.
Israel’s Call For Unity
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called upon his rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, to create an emergency unity government. An emergency government would help the Knesset coordinate its efforts to combat the spread of Corvid-19, Netanyahu said.
“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 press briefing. Netanyahu emphasized the large-scale possibilities of a mass outbreak that could lead to a high number of casualties. Simultaneous to his call for a creation of an emergency government, Netanyahu also announced the closing of most Israeli schools.
“We are altering our internal routine in order to handle an outside threat, the threat of the virus,” he said.
Israel’s Unique Situation
While taking precautions that echo those of other states grappling with the coronavirus outbreak, Netanyahu’s position and call for an emergency government is unique for several reasons.
First, Israel has been without clear leadership for a year. In that timespan, Netanyahu has won three elections, but his Likud Party has failed to secure a majority of the parliamentary seats. Consequently, the Knesset has been stuck in a standstill. Furthermore, Netanyahu is facing corruption charges with a court battle set to begin this week. On Tuesday, a court denied his petition to postpone it. The judge wrote that be cause the March 17 court date is a reading only, Netanyahu’s response is unneeded.
Netanyahu’s appearance in court will soon be necessary, however. It will be the first time in Israeli history for a sitting prime minister to stand trial. The very idea of it raised the possibility of Netanyahu ramming through legislation to secure immunity for himself and future premiers. Doing so would require a cooperative Knesset, which he has not had for a year.
In truth, the idea of a sweeping Likud victory to save Netanyahu’s political career likely drove more voters to turn out for Gantz. Now, the question arises of whether Netanyahu is playing up coronavirus concerns to cast a need for an emergency government in a bid to extend his political life. If he can negotiate a deal with rival factions that keeps him in power, Netanyahu can buy himself time. Would he pass emergency legislation to battle Covid-19? Certainly, but who would put it past Netanyahu to also continue plans to annex the West Bank? Maybe the emergency unity government will work so well that they decide to leave it together after the crisis subsides.
Does the Unity Government Mean Everyone is Included?
Responding to Netanyahu’s offer of negotiating an emergency unity government, Gantz gave one condition: it must “include representation from all parts of the house,” referencing the Joint List, the predominantly-Arab, third-largest party.
Netanyahu issued a blanket refusal, telling his opponent that “terror supporters” cannot join the unity government. Until now, the Joint List has also refused to join any Netanyahu-led coalition, so it’s questionable whether it would change its opinion due to the health emergency. Gantz is hardly in a position to negotiate that term in to the agreement, as Anshel Pfeffer opined recently for Haaretz. Does he truly care about including the Joint List or is it a political move designed to make Netanyahu look like the bad guy once again when he refuses to acquiesce?
More than likely it was a simple maneuver of political posturing. On one side you have a premier standing trial for corruption, taking Palestinian land, and refusing to include an Arab party in the emergency government. On the other, you have Gantz, a leader preaching unity and inclusiveness for all Israelis.
Will the Unity Government Happen?
When the emergency unity government folds, if it is even formed, there will most likely be another election. Gantz isn’t going anywhere and his chances will improve as Netanyahu’s trial plays out.
In the meantime, talks of an emergency government, unprecedented in Israeli politics, have yet to begin in earnest. After Netanyahu’s televised remarks, he made a phone call to Gantz to personally introduce the idea. Gantz was agreeable to their negotiating teams meeting, but nothing has come from it yet.
“So far I have not received a serious reply from him,” Gantz said, adding “I am still waiting — because an emergency government is the right thing for the State of Israel at this time.”