Coronavirus spurs unity government fever in Israel

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen the crash of global markets, panic buying and drastic curbs on travel and public gatherings to a level unprecedented in modern times, including in Israel.

Israel has closed its schools and universities, ordered the cancellation of all events involving  more than 100 people, and announced a massive economic bailout package to stabilize the economy to whatever extent possible.

The pandemic now has the potential to lead to something that until recently has been even more unthinkable – the creation of an Israeli government.

Ten days after Israel’s March 2 election, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of the Likud party and his challenger Benny Gantz of Blue and White – under growing pressure from the public – have quite abruptly halted their efforts to form narrow right and left-wing governments respectively and are now both calling for an emergency national unity government.

Netanyahu took the initiative, making the call for unity during what has become a nightly update on policy regarding public health and the economy. Some analysts immediately leapt on the staging of this announcement as another political tactic by Netanyahu to gain the upper hand over Gantz.

Gantz quickly agreed in principle, but of course, as had been the case in previous negotiations over unity, each side has a very different view of what such a government would look like. This is not an agreement that is likely to be hammered out overnight – though at the speed developments have been moving around the world lately, it can’t be  ruled out.

At any rate, given the unprecedented crisis facing the country and indeed the world, it is likely that this call for unity, unlike previous ones, is not something that either side can politically retreat from. Therefore, the formation of an emergency national unity government under the leadership of Netanyahu seems nearly inevitable and only a matter of time.

Netanyahu stands to gain politically from the crisis in the short term, even while his court case on charges of breach of trust, bribery and fraud begins in four days’ time. Most Israelis, even those who oppose the idea of a prime minister serving while under criminal indictment, are not ready to potentially sacrifice lives for principle, and there has been broad support for Netanyahu’s aggressive policies in combatting the spread of the virus, which has placed Israel in the top tier of countries in this regard.

At a relatively early stage, Netanyahu took a gamble to place public health ahead of the economy. If the coronavirus threat had fizzled, he very likely would have paid a heavy political price for that gamble.

In the event of a national unity government, Netanyahu will also bear the brunt of the responsibility for the decisions made moving forward, and Netanyahu’s political future, criminal charges aside, will depend on the public’s verdict of the Prime Minister’s judgement throughout.

For Gantz, a national unity government would give him the opportunity to do something that he has been unable to do up until now – roll up his sleeves, get his hands dirty in the Knesset, and bank some achievements that he could take into a future election.