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Will Israel Form a National Unity Government?

23 Mar 2020 Foreign Policy

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Benjamin Netanyahu floats a unity government proposal in Israel, talks between the Taliban and Afghan government begin slowly, and Italy plans business closures to fight epidemic.

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Netanyahu Claims Deal Agreed. Rivals Not Convinced.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed over the weekend that he had agreed to form an emergency unity government with rival Benny Gantz, Haaretz reported. The supposed deal would leave Netanyahu’s Likud party with the posts of prime minister and finance minister with Gantz set to replace Netanyahu as prime minister within a year and a half. “I will leave office on the agreed date,” Netanyahu said, addressing Gantz, “There will be no shticks and tricks. Millions of Israelis are waiting for us.”

Netanyahu told Israel’s Channel 12 that although no agreement has been signed yet, Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White party had finished up negotiations on the shape of a unity government. It does not appear that Netanyahu’s oppenents have agreed to the plan.

Can Netanyahu hold on? Israel’s longest serving prime minister has recently found ways to cling to political life: his justice minister closed the court system, delaying his corruption trial until at least May, and by seeking to suspend the Knesset, Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a Likud member, effectively blocked Blue and White from forming parliamentary committees and from electing a new speaker—a move that was challenged in Israel’s supreme court.

The move did not go over well with the public. Nearly 600,000 Israelis showed up for a virtual protest against efforts to shut the Knesset in an event streamed on Facebook Live due to restrictions on large gatherings.

Several luminaries including former domestic intelligence chief Yuval Diskin, ex-Mossad head Efraim Halevy, former Supreme Court vice president Elyakim Rubinstein, TV personality Lucy Aharish, and actress Gila Almagor spoke during the online event.

Supreme Court keeps Knesset open. The court ruled on Sunday that “steps taken to combat coronavirus shouldn’t prevent Knesset activities from going ahead” and members will reportedly enter the chamber six at a time to vote this week while those members under quarantine will cast their votes from home if a method is found to facilitate remote voting.

What has Benny Gantz said? Gantz’s response has been cryptic, initially tweeting “Those who want unity do not work with ultimatums and harmful leaks and certainly do not try to hurt our democracy and citizens by paralyzing the Knesset.” Members of his party do not seem to support any unity government led by Netanyahu.

According to the Jerusalem Post, a Blue and White source argued “Netanyahu doesn’t want unity…He’s been busy undermining democracy and making threats instead of seriously working towards unity. Benny Gantz has been given the mandate to form a government and everyone is united in the effort to make that happen.”

Gantz still has 22 days to form a government after he gained the recommendation of 61 members of the Knesset and was given the go ahead by Israel’s president. Meanwhile, after the court ruling on keeping the Knesset running, Blue and White appears poised to take over key parliamentary committees if the votes go ahead.

What We’re Following Today

Taliban talks open up. The Afghan government and the Taliban made a minor breakthrough in nascent peace talks as a Skype call restarted dialogue on prisoner exchanges. The two-hour meeting, facilitated by the United States and Qatar, is the first time the two sides have spoken since talks stalled over the method of releasing prisoners. The Taliban wants 5,000 prisoners released immediately, whereas Ashraf Ghani’s government wants there to be a phased release.

Earthquake hits Croatia. A 5.3 magnitude earthquake hit Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, yesterday, damaging buildings and injuring 17 people. Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic called it the worst earthquake to hit Croatia in 140 years. The country’s health minister, Vili Beros, told residents to maintain caution even as they assess the damage, “Earthquakes are dangerous but coronavirus is even more so,” he said. Croatia has registered 254 cases of coronavirus so far.

New Delhi on lockdown. New Delhi’s 21 million residents will be placed under lockdown until March 31 as India seeks to confront the coronavirus. On Sunday, Indians observed a “janata” curfew, or people’s curfew, as Indians were encouraged to stay at home until 9 p.m. Although the country has only registered 341 cases of coronavirus so far, experts say that low number could be due to lack of testing.

White House confirms Kim Jong Un letter. As a signal of “the special and very firm personal relations” between their leader and U.S. President Donald Trump, North Korea said it had received a letter from the White House seeking cooperation on the coronavirus epidemic. The White House confirmed sending the letter and said it was “consistent with his efforts to engage global leaders during the ongoing pandemic.” North Korea has not halted missile testing during the outbreak, and conducted another round of test launches last Saturday.

Italy closes more businesses. Italy is set to close all nonessential businesses until April 3 as a further measure to combat its coronavirus epidemic. In a live address, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said “only production activities deemed vital for national production will be allowed,” although grocery stores, banks, post offices and pharmacies will remain open. Italy’s coronavirus death toll now stands at 5,476 after 651 people died on Sunday.

Keep an Eye On

Russia’s Italy aid. Russia’s defense ministry said it would send eight mobile medic brigades, special disinfection vehicles, and other medical equipment to Italy under a direct order from President Vladimir Putin. Russia has reported only 306 cases of the coronavirus so far, with one death.

COVID-19 comes to Africa. Three more African countries—Angola, Eritrea, and Uganda—have now confirmed their first coronavirus cases. Although more cases are being reported on the continent, Africa is yet to see the same number of infections as Europe and Asia: Of the 23 countries with more than 1,000 confirmed cases so far, none are in Africa. African governments may also have important lessons to teach the West based on their experience battling Ebola, as a former Liberian finance minister, Amara Konneh, argued in Foreign Policy last week.

Coronavirus in Gaza. The densely-populated Gaza Strip has reported its first two cases of coronavirus, after two men returning from Pakistan via Egypt tested positive. Already under blockade, Israel announced it would close its borders with Gaza to commercial traffic but would allow humanitarian staff through. According to the Palestinian health ministry, there have been 59 cases of coronavirus in the West Bank.

More leaders test positive. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul has tested positive for the coronavirus, his office confirmed yesterday. He is the highest-ranking U.S. official so far to become infected. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has gone into self-quarantine after it emerged her doctor was diagnosed with the coronavirus. Merkel had visited her doctor on Friday to receive a pneumococcal vaccine. Foreign Policy is keeping track of the world leaders who have been infected with the coronavirus with a running list, updated daily.

The World This Week

A preliminary hearing will take place today in the trial of Paul Whelan, the U.S. citizen held in Russia on allegations of espionage since December 2018. Prosecutors are expected to request an extension until October.

Foreign ministers from the G-7 countries will meet Wednesday over video conference ahead of the June G-7 summit. The decision has already been made to cancel an in-person summit because of coronavirus fears.

U.S. lawmakers are expected to hammer out a package to deal with the economic impacts of the coronavirus. A bill is currently being held up over disagreements between Democrats and Republicans on worker protections and corporate aid.

Odds and Ends

Argentina’s president has confirmed that although strict measures are in place as the country goes into lockdown, the tooth fairy will still be allowed to roam freely. Responding to a mother on Twitter whose son had just lost his first tooth, President Alberto Fernandez wrote “The tooth fairy can leave rewards for fallen teeth because he is not under quarantine. But the rest of us are…Joaquin should leave the tooth beneath his pillow and enjoy the prize.”

That’s it for today. 

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Image credit: Gali Tibbon/AFP

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