TEL AVIV – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday called for establishing an emergency government of national unitywith his Likud party’s main challenger, Blue and White, to combat the coronavirus pandemic. In a dramatic address to the nation, the prime minister also announced the immediate closure of all schools and universities in the country.
Israel has been embroiled in a political deadlock for a year with three national elections that failed to see the formation of a government.
During the press conference, Netanyahu said it was time to “put politics aside” and instead “focus on the health and the lives of the citizens of Israel.”
To that end, he called for a unity government with Blue and White, the second largest party to emerge from last week’s election.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said he was prepared to discuss establishing a broad unity emergency government that would include representations from all the major parties – including the Arab-majority Joint List. The Likud in response said it would accept all parties who accept “a Jewish democratic state.”
Netanyahu’s unity proposal will likely take the form of an interim caretaker government.
“An emergency unity government should be set up without any hesitations and without delay,” Netanyahu said.
“It will be an emergency government for a limited period of time and together we will fight to save the lives of tens of thousands of citizens. We have to put politics aside, afterwards there will be time to return to the same point, but right now we have a national responsibility. And that responsibility, both on a national and personal level, outweighs any other considerations,” he added.
Following the briefing, Netanyahu invited Gantz to meet with him Thursday evening.
During the live TV address, Netanyahu also announced the immediate shuttering of schools and universities until further notice. The measure would not affect kindergartens and special education schools.
The pandemic was “a global event unlike anything in the history of the state’s existence,” Netanyahu said.
He also requested that the parents avoid asking their own parents to babysit, since people older than 50 are more susceptible to the virus.
The mortality rate from the virus, which he said was between two and four percent, was “very high.”
109 Israelis have been confirmed to have contracted the virus, although there have so far been no deaths. A six-month old baby is among those confirmed with the virus.
Netanyahu compared it with the 1918 Spanish flu, which claimed the lives of up to 50 million people.
He also reiterated the ban made a day prior on gatherings above 100 people, and said people should refrain from gatherings altogether.
Earlier Thursday, the heads of other parties, including Yamina’s Naftali Bennett, Shas’ Arye Deri and Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman, called for a unity government.
“So far, we have had to deal with two fronts, the economic front and the security front. Right now the main problem is related to corona[virus],” Liberman said. He noted that together, Likud and Blue and White have 68 seats of the 120-seat Knesset, which is more than enough to form a government without additional partners.
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett suggested that the newly formed emergency government pass a law to freeze the entire political process for six months.
MK Gideon Sa’ar, who faced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the primaries last December and lost, called on the prime minister to form a unity government without any delay. The virus’ implications are “far-reaching,” he said.
“No less important is the urgent need to restore our citizens’ confidence in the political system,” he added.
Following Netanyahu’s briefing, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman said his ministry would expand the number of COVID-19 tests performed on Israelis on a daily basis from 600 to at least 2,000.