U.S. Markets closed

Virus Emergency May Prove a Lifeline for Israel’s Netanyahu

Gwen Ackerman and Ivan Levingston

(Bloomberg) -- The coronavirus has thrown Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an unexpected lifeline to keep afloat a career threatened by corruption indictments and stalemated elections. At least for now.

The Justice Ministry on Sunday delayed Netanyahu’s trial -- scheduled to start on Tuesday -- until May, as the Israeli premier declared an emergency, made nightly broadcasts to the people and implemented tough policies aimed at containment.

The epidemic “might at least extend Netanyahu’s time in office,” said Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group consultancy. “Even Netanyahu’s critics are appreciative of his risk averseness, and the clear majority of Israelis thinks he performs well.”

Netanyahu’s oratorical prowess and experience in dealing with crises has softened vehement opposition to his continued premiership. Avigdor Liberman, a former defense minister who played kingmaker in Israel’s last two elections, joined Netanyahu’s call Sunday for the formation of a six-month emergency government with the second-largest party, Blue and White.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz rejected the proposal, accusing Netanyahu of manipulating the public with the postponement of his trial and an outline for an emergency government instead of negotiating coalition terms.

‘Get Serious’

“When you get serious,” he said, “we can talk.”

Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin said he will tap Gantz, the former military chief, with the mandate to form the next government after Netanyahu’s rival received the most recommendations from parliament members.

But given disagreement within Gantz’s own party and allies over sitting in a coalition supported by Arab lawmakers, he will still face a challenge in forming a ruling bloc.

“He’s got a majority that is willing to give him the first chance but that same majority won’t be able to stay together and form a government,” said Hebrew University political scientist Reuven Hazan. “It gives him a better bargaining position so that he can hopefully create a national unity government that will be somewhat equal in its composition.”

‘Cynical Exploitation’

A senior Blue and White member and former defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, described Netanyahu’s moves as “a cynical exploitation of the corona crisis for personal political needs.”

Liberman was also not convinced of Netanyahu’s sincerity.

“Netanyahu wants to hold another round of elections within eight months on the victorious wings of Corona,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Before the outbreak, Netanyahu wasn’t only fighting to have his trial delayed, but also struggling to put together the 61-seat majority needed to form Israel’s next government before rival Blue and White did. It was the third time in less than a year that national elections in Israel ended in stalemate.

President Reuven Rivlin, who this week is holding consultations with the parties before picking the lawmaker he deems most likely to form a coalition, urged politicians Sunday to arrive at the meeting “with the understanding that now we must establish a government as soon as possible.”

(Updates with Gantz receiving mandate to form next government in seventh paragraph)

To contact the reporters on this story: Gwen Ackerman in Jerusalem at gackerman@bloomberg.net;Ivan Levingston in Tel Aviv at ilevingston@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Riad Hamade at rhamade@bloomberg.net, James Ludden

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com

Subscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.