by Keren Setton
JERUSALEM, March 16 (Xinhua) -- As the majority of Israelis are preoccupied with the spread of the novel coronavirus and the subsequent measures the government is taking to slow it down, attempts to form a government in the grid-locked country continue.
On Monday, Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz officially received the mandate from President Reuven Rivlin, making him the first to have a crack at forming a government.
Sitting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not get enough recommendations to do so and will have to wait maximum 42 days. If Gantz does not succeed, Netanyahu will then get a go.
This political game comes at a sensitive time. As many Israelis have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus crisis and schools and many businesses have shut down, citizens are thirsty for a permanent government.
Israel has been under a caretaker government for over a year after two consecutive elections have failed to result in a government. The third election, held in the beginning of this month, ended with the exact same results.
With the confirmed coronavirus cases rapidly rising, Israel is near a complete shutdown. There is no new budget, so it remains the same as last year's and is handed out on a monthly basis without consideration of population growth and the recent crisis.
With this in mind, Rivlin called Netanyahu and Gantz for an urgent meeting at his residence on Sunday night in an attempt to persuade the sides to agreeing to sit together in a unity government.
Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, has vowed not to sit in a government with Netanyahu, leader of the Likud, who is under indictment.
Early Monday morning, the Likud and the Blue and White announced their teams would meet in order to negotiate the terms. The distrust between the two sides is immense.
"Anyone who has watched the news in recent days understands that this is a time of trial, and that these are not regular consultations ... we must now deal with forming a government as soon as possible, to lead our people at this complex time," said Rivlin as he met with different political leaders.
Whether Gantz will break his election promise not to partner with the embattled Netanyahu remains a question.
"Blue and White believes that the majority of their voters will not forgive them for this (breaking the election promise)," said Arieh Eldad, a former right-wing Israeli politician, adding "But this is not the case. The public understands the catastrophe the country is facing and will allow them to sit with Netanyahu for the coming year."
While it may seem that Netanyahu suffered a blow by not being the first to be tasked with the government formation, Gantz's chances of assembling a coalition are slim.
He had the majority of recommendations, 61, as opposed to Netanyahu's 58. But Gantz's supporters are deeply divided. Their only common denominator is their distaste for Netanyahu. The bloc has the Arab joint list on the one side and ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, on the other.
It is unlikely that Gantz will form a government with the Arab parties. The more likely scenario is that they give their support from outside. This would mean a minority government. Traditionally, Arab lawmakers have not joined governments in Israel or held cabinet portfolios for ideological reasons and their automatic support for the Palestinians.
"Israel is not really ready for such a government," said Julia Elad-Strenger, a political psychologist from Bar Ilan University. "The majority of the country is in the right-wing."
Forming a minority government that leans on Arab support will be a highly contentious move in Israel.
"It is political suicide and it will be a government that will last only several months," Eldad said. "Blue and White knows this and doest not want to politically self-destruct."
The three consecutive elections have largely been about Netanyahu, Israel's longest serving prime minister. Public support for him is extensive and as the country finds itself on the brink of a crisis due to the coronavirus, he further solidifies his status. His legal battles have barely scathed him amongst his supporters.
"Without parliamentary tricks, Netanyahu is not going to go anywhere," Elad-Strenger said. "The public is not going to bring him down. What will bring an end to his government is only such tricks, and then the question arises whether this is legitimate or not."
Elad-Strenger is referring to a law being promoted by Blue and White and other parties opposed to Netanyahu by which a person under indictment cannot run for office.
Netanyahu has been indicted on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. Currently the law in Israel does not forbid him from running or leading.
Because the bloc opposing Netanyahu holds the majority of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, the law could easily be passed. This would change the game for a future election, which is still an option, as long as the deadlock continues.
"This is the most likely scenario," said Elad-Strenger.
As Israel grapples with the local effects of the global crisis, there is an expectation amongst the public that the politicians will put their interests aside for the greater good and form a broad unity government.
Netanyahu extended an offer on Sunday to Gantz to join a government aimed at battling the coronavirus, suggesting alternating the leadership post between the two.
Meanwhile, the majority of Israeli citizens have lost interest in the political game and are looking for solutions to their acute problems which have risen in light of the crisis.