Sets out terms for emergency coalition; says pandemic could prove worst since Middle Ages, with world’s medical services at risk of collapse, UK and US on brink of losing control
By TOI STAFF 21 March 2020, 10:34 pm
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday warned that the health care systems of countries around the world are facing imminent collapse if the spread of the coronavirus cannot be contained, and claimed that the virus may turn out to prove the biggest threat to humanity since the Middle Ages.
At the same time, he implored his opposition rival Benny Gantz to join him in an “emergency unity government” in order to help save Israel from the virus, where he said it threatened to kill “tens of thousands.” Netanyahu said he would share power on a completely even basis with Gantz’s Blue and White party for three years, although he would insist on serving for the first 18 months of that period as prime minister, with Gantz then taking over. Gantz was tasked by Israel’s president on Monday with forming a government, after receiving the backing of 61 of the 120 MKs.
In an interview with Channel 12 news, Netanyahu issued a series of terrifying predictions about the possible global impact of the virus — whose accuracy cannot definitively be determined at this stage — but denied that he was trying to panic the Israeli public into retaining him as prime minister. Netanyahu has acted quickly in recent weeks to close Israel’s borders and impose an internal semi-lockdown to try to thwart the contagion; as of Saturday night, almost 900 Israelis have been found to be infected, and there has been one fatality.
He said “nobody knows” how devastating the virus would ultimately prove, but that it could well infect “60, 70, 80 percent” of the populations of some countries, with colossal numbers of fatalities. With a death toll “veering between 1 and 4%,” he said, “in England that could mean a million or two million” fatalities.”
“Countries that didn’t close their borders” when the virus began its spread from China, he said, specifying Italy, Spain, France and the UK, “are on the edge of losing control.” Some of them, he noted, already have thousands of dead.
In the United States, he added, the situation was particularly grave in California and New York, where the authorities were moving toward a lockdown. “They’re losing control,” he said.
Israel, which did close its borders, “is in a much better situation,” but still potentially faces “tens of thousand of dead,” he said. “This isn’t spin.”
A convoy of Italian Army trucks is unloaded upon arrival from Bergamo carrying bodies of coronavirus victims to the cemetery of Ferrara, Italy, where they were to be cremated, Saturday, March 21, 2020. (Massimo Paolone/LaPresse via AP)
Netanyahu said his strategy was first to locate, isolate and treat those who are infected, and second, to enable those who are healthy to come out of the current semi-lockdown, go back to work, and save the economy. “As things stood,” he acknowledged, “we are destroying the economy.” He said the current semi-lockdown regulations would remain in force until after next month’s Passover holiday at a minimum.
His aim, he said, was to carry out huge numbers of tests, in the hope that it could be established that some people were developing antibodies to resist the virus and could safely be “freed” from isolation — provided, that was, that it could be determined that people cannot get infected a second time.
Interrupted at this point by anchor Dana Weiss, he objected: “I’m trying to save the citizens, you, my children… We may be in the midst of not just the worst crisis in a century, but the worst since the Middle Ages,” he said.
“All the world’s medical services are facing collapse” if we can’t gain control over this virus, he said, “because the number of patients will be so astronomical.”
Italy, Spain, France, the UK and, “I have news,” the United States, were facing that risk, he stressed.
“We all have to pray to the Creator” that we can stop this pandemic, he said. When it was put to him that Israel’s scientists might be the address, he said “Weizmann is praying too” — referring to Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, a leading public research university.
Netanyahu said he was imploring Gantz — against whom he has fought three elections in a year, all of which have ended with neither man easily able to build a coalition — to join him in an emergency unity government to help fight the pandemic.
He blamed Gantz’s Blue and White party for the sequence of events that led the Knesset’s speaker, Yuli Edelstein, a member of his Likud party, to suspend parliament last week. As a consequence, there is currently no parliamentary oversight of radically intrusive measures introduced on Wednesday by the government that monitor the movements of all citizens to warn them if they have been in proximate, lengthy contact with a virus carrier and order them into isolation. The Knesset is set to resume activities on Monday, Edelstein has promised.
Pressed on whether he was exaggerating the danger posed by the virus, to scare the nation into not replacing him as prime minister, Netanyahu denied this: “I’m working for the state… standing at the wheel, steering between icebergs. Behind me already there are other states, Titanics.”
Gantz was recommended as prime minister by 61 of the 120 MKs last Sunday, and was tasked by President Reuven Rivlin the next day with building a coalition. But if Gantz does not partner with Netanyahu, he could only potentially secure a majority with the support of the 15-strong Joint List of mainly Arab parties.
Netanyahu claimed he would have won the election outright had the public realized Gantz might contemplate a coalition with the Arab MKs, whom he again called “supporters of terrorism.”
He detailed the unity offer he has made to Gantz as follows, and claimed the key elements were “sealed”: An equal sharing of power between their two political blocs for three years, with Netanyahu serving the first 18 months as prime minister, and then handing over to Gantz; an equal number of ministers; Blue and White to hold the foreign and defense jobs, and Likud the Treasury and Knesset speaker’s job for 18 months, and then switching; and a justice minister agreed by both sides, or a minister and a deputy from each party, with both required to sign off on major legislation and decisions.
He said the framework would be enshrined by law, and that unity was vital, but accused Gantz’s No.2 Yair Lapid of thwarting it. “This a crises for humanity, with tens of thousands of dead… I hope we’ll beat it. They [in Blue and White] have to stop [the arguing].”
When it was put to him that during the campaign for the March 2 elections he had tarred Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, as incapable of leading Israel, and possibly suffering from dementia, but was now ostensibly offering to share the leadership of Israel with him, Netanyahu said: “That’s the decision of the electorate, not mine… We have to compromise… I made a super-generous offer.”
He said the unity opportunity would be over on Monday, however, if Blue and White moves ahead with its bid to oust Edelstein, because Gantz’s party then intends to fast-track legislation intended to disqualify Netanyahu as prime minister [because he is under indictment in three graft cases]. “This is a last call for unity,” he said.
If it is rejected, sooner rather than later Israel would be plunged into fourth elections, he said. Blue and White “want to pass laws to prevent me from forming a government, so they can have deluxe elections in which nobody can compete with Benny Gantz.” That was the kind of thing they do in Iran, he said.
In a remarkable moment, Weiss asked Netanyahu to look into the camera and promise Gantz he’d abide by the terms of a unity deal. “100%,” said Netanyahu, indeed looking into the camera. Would he hand over power, as scheduled in September 2021, he was asked? “I’ll hand over power on the date that we agree — no tricks,” he promised.
The people, he said, want him and Gantz to work together to “save Israel from the greatest world crisis — maybe even [worse than some of the worst] wars.”
Apparently over 50 million died from the Spanish Flu in 1918, and about the same number in World War II, he said. “The death toll [from the coronavirus] might be greater if we can’t stop it.”
“It’s a real offer, fantastic, good,” he said, still addressing Gantz. “We have to save the country — our parents, our friends, our brothers, children.”
Asked whether he would present himself for his trial, which was set to open on March 17 but was postponed to May because of the crisis, he said: “I’ll do whatever the court requires of me. If the trial starts, I’ll be present — and I’ll disprove the charges against me.”
Then he added, “history is on trial here. We have to work together.”