Following tough negotiations, Israeli politicians unnaturally silent on unity talks amid corona

Normally chirpy Twitter feeds of top politicians go silent before the weekend as public focus is on coronavirus actions, not coalition talks. 

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

Israeli politicians and reporters were unnaturally silent Friday with almost no news or comments on the negotiations for a new government of national unity.

Following a week of hard-nosed negotiations, the lively banter on Twitter and updates on coalition talks from Israel’s competitive news websites virtually disappeared.

News reports centered on the fight to stop the spread of the coronavirus and efforts to evacuate thousands of elderly from the hard-hit city of Bnei Brak, put under closure by government order.

Following opposition Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz’s surprise move last week to join in a unity government with the Likud Party and serve under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, negotiators for the two parties spent the week hammering out details of what that government would look like.

By mid-afternoon on Friday, party leaders and political reporters had not broached the subject that day, with only Yisrael Beiteinu party leader Avigdor Liberman chiming in he that he wanted to replace Health Minister Yaakov Litzman.

On Thursday night it was revealed that Litzman tested positive for coronavirus, forcing a healthy Netanyahu and other senior officials to work from quarantine.

“We do not yet know how the coalition negotiations between the Likud and Blue and White will end, but what is clear is that Litzman must not continue to serve as minister of health,” Liberman tweeted.

Pressure for large unity cabinet

With no clear winner from the March 2 national elections, Gantz received the mandate on March 16 to form a government. However, as the coronavirus crisis worsened and he seemed unable to garner the 61 seats needed for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Gantz decided the situation called for a unity government under Netanyahu despite his previous statements he would never do so.

Netanyahu’s Likud Party said it wanted a government with 34 ministers, while Gantz’s party was satisfied with 30, reports said. Likud currently has 15 cabinet ministers, but other political parties needed in the coalition will drive that number down to only 10 and could create internal party friction with Likud party stalwarts.

Potential coalition partners that currently support Netanyahu include the Yemina Party of Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, the religious Shas Party headed by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, and United Torah Judaism led by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman.

If Netanyahu does not make them ministers, it could torpedo unity government efforts. Including them, however, could swell the cabinet to up to 36 ministerial and deputy positions.

With unemployment surging to 25 percent and the country facing a potential economic catastrophe, pressure is building not to appoint so many cabinet ministers.

“We have to be sensitive about the size of the government during this period,” said Gideon Saar, a senior member of Likud. He said the crisis demanded Israel create a “skinny” government.

“It is not right to form the most inflated government of all time at the time of the greatest economic crisis.”

Clock also ticking towards new elections

Just over two weeks ago, a confident Gantz received the green light to try and form a government and said that “the coronavirus crisis is not the greatest crisis that we have faced.”

The world has changed drastically since then, and the country has been hit by an unprecedented double whammy of health and economic crises. A staggering one in four Israelis is already unemployed, and there are fears the pandemic will leave thousands of Israelis dead and the healthcare system and economy shattered.

The 28-day period for forming a new government will soon expire, and pressure is building on Netanyahu and Gantz to compromise; otherwise, the country could be forced to go to the polls in September. It would be an unprecedented fourth national election in the space of little more than a year.