Middle East

Israel to swear in new parliament under coronavirus shadow

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel was to swear in its newly elected parliament on Monday under stringent restrictions because of the coronavirus outbreak in what was expected to be a surreal ceremony reflecting the country’s unprecedented dual crisis in politics and public health.

Instead of the typical festive gathering of parliament’s 120 members, the new lawmakers will be staggered into the plenum in 40 rounds of three each so as to abide by the health ministry’s guidelines of limiting public gatherings to 10 people at a time. Israel’s largely ceremonial president Reuven Rivlin will preside over the unusual event after the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, was thoroughly sprayed with disinfectant.

The event, coming two weeks after national elections, will give the country a new legislature. But Israel still seems a long way from establishing a stable government.

Rivlin on Monday formally designated opposition leader Benny Gantz the task of forming a coalition after the retired military chief secured a slim majority of recommendations from incoming lawmakers.

Gantz promised to “do whatever it takes to form within as few days as possible a national, patriotic and broad government.”

But beyond a joint desire to oust longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Gantz’s bloc of supporters has very little in common. It is deeply divided along ideological lines and appears unlikely to band together for an alternative government that could replace Netanyahu’s.

Netanyahu’s Likud emerged as the largest party in the March 2 election, Israel’s third in under a year, but along with his smaller religious and nationalist allies only has the support of 58 lawmakers — leaving his right-wing bloc three seats short of the required majority in parliament. He also faces serious legal troubles as he prepares to go on trial to face corruption charges.

With the country’s continued deadlock likely, and the prospect of yet another election seeming preposterous under the circumstances, Rivlin summoned both Netanyahu and Gantz late Sunday to an emergency meeting in hopes of cajoling them into a unity government. Both men have expressed openness to the concept amid a national sense of emergency surrounding the spread of the new virus. But there is deep distrust between them after a nasty campaign and they differ on who should lead such a government.

Netanyahu has been shepherding the country as it confronts a growing coronavirus threat, with some 250 people diagnosed and the number quickly rising. He’s imposed a series of sweeping travel and quarantine measures that have thus far helped prevent any virus-related fatalities, but experts still predict many more difficult weeks ahead and the prospect of a more far-reaching clampdown on daily life.

The virus has spread to more than 100 countries, infected more than 170,000 people worldwide and killed more than 6,500. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.

Netanyahu’s aggressive response, showcased in near-daily prime-time television addresses, seems to have boosted his standing. His criminal trial has been postponed because of the restrictions on public gatherings and the pandemic eruption has offered him an opportunity to flaunt his leadership skills and project a narrative that his legal woes pale in comparison.

A poll published Sunday night on Channel 12 news showed 62% of the public saying he was handling the crisis in a responsible manner, with 70% supporting his decision-making. The Direct Polls Ltd. survey polled 821 adult Israelis and had a margin of error of 4.1%.

Still, some of his measures have drawn stiff criticism from civil liberties groups, in particular his authorization of the Shin Bet internal security agency to use mobile-phone tracking technology to monitor the movements of coronovirus patients.

Opponents also bemoaned how his hand-picked interim justice minister swiftly declared a state of emergency in the court system, forcing the postponement of Netanyahu’s trial for more than two months.

Netanyahu faces charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in connection to a series of scandals. He is accused of receiving expensive gifts from wealthy friends and offering to exchange favors with powerful media moguls. The long-ruling Israeli leader denies any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a media-orchestrated witch hunt.

Gantz ally and fellow former military chief Moshe Yaalon has compared Netanyahu’s conduct to that of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, saying it was “cynical exploitation of the corona crisis for the political needs of a man standing before trial.”

Such protestations have swiftly drawn rebukes from Netanyahu’s Likud party as petty politics at a time when the prime minister is “managing a national and global crisis in a measured and responsible fashion.”

Netanyahu, in his caretaker role, has invited Gantz to join him in an emergency government, suggesting they rotate as prime minister — with Netanyahu going first. Gantz has left the door open but also dismissed Netanyahu’s outreach as insincere.

Although Gantz’s chances of forming a new government appear slim, receiving the “mandate” from Rivlin could strengthen his position in unity talks with Netanyahu.

During the transition period, his Blue and White party is expected to name one of its members as speaker of the parliament and to pass legislation that would prevent an indicted politician from forming a new government. That legislation would impede Netanyahu’s chances of victory if the country is forced into a fourth election and push him toward compromise.

Reporting by Aron Heller

Image: Ultra Orthodox Jews pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Sunday, March 15, 2020. Israel imposed sweeping travel and quarantine measures more than a week ago but has seen its number of confirmed coronavirus cases double in recent days, to around 200. On Saturday, the government said restaurants, malls, cinemas, gyms and daycare centers would close. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

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