March 15, 2020 / 9:23 AM / 18 days ago

REFILE-Amid coronavirus crisis, Israel tries to untangle political knot

(Refiles to correct typo in second para)

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM, March 15 (Reuters) - Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday proposed a six-month “emergency government” to confront the coronavirus crisis and end a political deadlock after the country’s third inconclusive election in less than a year.

With Netanyahu facing criminal charges in three corruption cases - his trial was supposed to start on Tuesday - political rivals quickly cast aspersions on his motives.

The right-wing Likud party leader made the offer to his main political challenger, former armed forces chief Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party, as Israel’s president was poised to choose a candidate this week to try to put together a governing coalition.

Neither Likud nor Blue and White won enough seats in parliament in the March 2 election to secure a ruling majority on their own, or with the support of potential coalition partners.

Netanyahu said on Twitter that a “national emergency government ... led by me” would - unlike Israel’s current caretaker administration - be able to pass a budget and make “difficult decisions” in the face of an “international and a national crisis”.

Israel’s longest-serving leader also proposed that as an alternative to a six-month government, he and Gantz could join forces in a four-year “unity” administration. Under that blueprint, Netanyahu would be prime minister for the first two years, and Gantz would then take over.

Gantz signalled he was open to a unity government but cast doubt on Netanyahu’s true intentions. Were Netanyahu sincere in his offer he would send a negotiating team to Blue and White rather than make proposals via social media, Gantz tweeted.

“When you’re serious, we’ll talk,” Gantz wrote.

Netanyahu has been spearheading Israel’s tough response to the coronavirus outbreak, and also faces a legal battle over corruption allegations, which he denies.

His trial, which had been due to start on March 17, was postponed on Sunday until May 24 due to the coronavirus crisis.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin began consultation with representatives of the Knesset parties on Sunday and called for a government — either a permanent unity government or a temporary emergency cabinet - to be established swiftly.

“We must establish a government as soon as possible that will lead our people at this complex time. It is possible that such a government will require provisional arrangements for the next few months but I have no doubt that this is what the people expects of its leader at this time,” Rivlin said.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Kirsten Donovan

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