Israel's Netanyahu orders schools closed, calls for unity government

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday ordered most schools in the country to close as a precaution against coronavirus, and called for the formation of an emergency national unity government.

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Primary and secondary schools, with some exceptions such as special education programs, would be shut, he said.

“We are altering our internal routine in order to handle an outside threat, the threat of the virus,” Netanyahu, 70, said in remarks broadcast live.

The right-wing leader’s tenure is in doubt after three inconclusive elections in less than a year.

Calling for a unity government, he said: “It will be an emergency government for a limited time, and together we will fight to save the lives of tens of thousands of citizens.”

Netanyahu’s principal rival, centrist Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz, said he would be willing to discuss the proposal in a responsible fashion. He tweeted that any such government should be “broad” and represent all sides of Israeli society.

Neither Netanyahu nor Gantz command a clear majority in parliament after the latest election, on March 2.

Netanyahu has faced calls to step aside ahead of a corruption trial that begins on March 17.

He faces charges including bribery, breach of trust and fraud, but denies any wrongdoing and is under no legal obligation to resign while the legal proceedings continue.

The latest coronavirus measures follow a series of tightening restrictions imposed by Israel and the Palestinians.

Earlier this week Netanyahu ordered all visitors to Israel to self-isolate for two weeks, and the Allenby Bridge crossing between Jordan and the Israeli-occupied West Bank was closed in what Israeli officials said was a joint Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian effort to stop the virus from spreading.

Israel’s flag carrier El Al said on Thursday it would start suspending most of its flights on Sunday but would maintain regular flight routes to the United States, Canada, England, France and South Africa.

The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which controls Gaza, said it would restrict travel with Egypt and Israel for all but the most urgent cases from Friday, and anyone entering Gaza would be put under “mandatory quarantine.”

It ordered schools and universities closed until the end of March.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, additional reporting byt Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza. Editing by Stephen Farrell, Toby Chopra and Mike Collett-White