Israeli PM and rival look to finalize emergency unity deal

AP , Tuesday 14 Apr 2020

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as he chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, March 8, 2020. (Photo: Reuters)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival met Tuesday in a final effort to finalize an agreement on an emergency government that would tackle the coronavirus threat and prevent yet another costly and divisive election amid the crisis.

The meeting between Netanyahu and former military chief Benny Gantz followed an overnight session in which the two asked for, and received, a deadline extension from President Reuven Rivlin to try to complete the talks.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz reported ``significant progress'' in their negotiations and Rivlin, whose duties include overseeing coalition negotiations, said he was convinced they were close and gave them two more days to wrap up a deal, till midnight Wednesday.

Should they fail, the clock will start ticking toward the dissolution of parliament and a possible, yet still seemingly improbable, fourth election in just over a year.

Last month's election, just like the previous two, ended with no clear winner. But with a slight majority of lawmakers, Gantz got the first shot at building a coalition and appeared poised to move forward with legislation that would have disqualified the indicted Netanyahu from serving as prime minister in the future. Gantz repeatedly vowed not to sit in government with Netanyahu because of the criminal corruption charges against the prime minister.

But with the virus crisis worsening, and his own shaky alliance fraying, Gantz made an about-face late last month and accepted an offer from Netanyahu to pursue a joint government to deal with the pandemic. The move drew heavy criticism from Gantz's supporters and caused his Blue and White alliance to crumble, leaving him with a faction of only about half its original size.

Israel has reported over 11,800 cases and at least 117 deaths from the outbreak, which has paralyzed the economy, shuttered Israelis in their homes and driven unemployment to record highs.

Netanyahu and Gantz appeared close to a rotation deal in which each would serve terms as prime minister. But last week negotiations stalled, reportedly over a demand by Netanyahu, who faces an impending corruption trial, to have more influence over judicial appointments.

Netanyahu is awaiting trial on charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud. He claims to be a victim of a liberal media and judicial system out to get him.

In a nationally televised address late Monday before his initial deadline ran out, Gantz called on Netanyahu to close the deal.

``This is our moment of truth. It's either an emergency national government or, heaven forbid, expensive and unnecessary fourth elections during a crisis,`` he said. ``History will not forgive either of us if we run away.''

Netanyahu tweeted back, ``Benny, I'm waiting for you at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem,`` which set off the marathon last-minute talks.

After three nasty campaigns, plenty of distrust and bad blood remains. Despite his calls for unity, Netanyahu may actually be angling for another election to capitalize on what has generally been regarded as his capable handling of the coronavirus crisis. Despite the heavy cost, Israel appears to be weathering the crisis better than many countries and Netanyahu has projected himself as the responsible elder statesman to navigate the country through the storm.

A poll published late Monday on Channel 12 TV showed Netanyahu's Likud surging in support and easily securing him re-election.

The longtime Israeli leader, who currently enjoys the backing of 59 lawmakers, could also try to lure a pair of defectors to deliver him a majority in the 120-seat Knesset and thus avert elections.

With the country led by a caretaker government and hobbled by legislative paralysis since the first election was called in late 2018, a fourth vote would extend the political crisis amid a global pandemic. It's unclear how an election could take place with present-day stay-at-home orders.

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