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Netanyahu, rival report 'meaningful progress' in unity talks

JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival said early Tuesday they had made “meaningful progress” in their efforts to form a joint government to confront the coronavirus crisis, agreeing to continue talks this week after a midnight deadline expired.

The late-night announcement provided a glimmer of hope that the sides could end the country's prolonged political paralysis and avoid a fourth election in just over a year.

In a joint statement, Netanyahu's Likud party and challenger Benny Gantz's Blue and White said they had asked the country's figurehead president for more time “with the aim of completing negotiations to form a national emergency government.”

President Reuven Rivlin, whose duties include overseeing coalition negotiations, agreed to the request to extend negotiations until midnight Wednesday. It said there was an "understanding that they are very close to reaching an agreement."

The sides said they would resume negotiations early Tuesday.

Ahead of the deadline, Gantz had urged Netanyahu to seal a deal or risk dragging the country into an unwanted election at a time of national crisis.

“Netanyahu, this is our moment of truth. It’s either an emergency national government or, heaven forbid, expensive and unnecessary fourth elections during a crisis. History will not forgive either of us if we run away,” he said in a nationally televised address.

Netanyahu invited Gantz to his official residence for last-ditch negotiations that stretched past midnight.

Israel last month held its third straight election in less than a year, after the previous two ended inconclusively. While the March 2 vote also ended with no clear winner, Gantz was endorsed by a slight majority of lawmakers, prompting Rivlin to give him the chance to form a government.

With his parliamentary majority, Gantz began moving ahead with legislation that would have disqualified Netanyahu, who has been indicted on corruption charges, from serving as prime minister in the future.

But as the coronavirus crisis worsened, Gantz made an about-face and accepted an offer from Netanyahu to pursue a joint government to deal with the pandemic. Gantz's decision drew heavy criticism from his supporters and caused his Blue and White alliance to crumble.

The sides appeared to be close to a rotation deal in which Netanyahu and Gantz would each serve terms as prime minister.

But last week, negotiations stalled, reportedly over a demand by Netanyahu, who faces an impending corruption trial, to have more influence over judicial appointments.

If their extended negotiations fail, Israel's Knesset, or parliament, will have three weeks to select a candidate from prime minister from its ranks. If that too fails, Israel will head to extraordinary fourth polls in just over a year.

With the country led by a caretaker government and hobbled by legislative paralysis since the first election was called in late 2018, a fourth vote would extend the political crisis at a time when the country is dealing with its coronavirus outbreak.

Israel has reported over 11,500 cases and at least 116 deaths from the outbreak, which has paralyzed the economy and driven unemployment to record highs.

Throughout three bitter campaigns, Gantz said he would never sit in a government led by Netanyahu as long as he faces corruption charges. But Gantz said the gravity of the coronavirus crisis had convinced him to change his position.

Each of the three elections has been a referendum on Netanyahu, who has portrayed himself as the consummate statesman while trying to play down the charges against him. Charged with accepting bribes, breach of trust and fraud, he has claimed to be a victim of a liberal media and judicial system out to get him.

The coronavirus crisis has provided the long-serving leader with a lifeline. He has helmed the country's response, positioning himself as a capable, tested leader who has worked his international connections to steer Israel through the crisis. While Netanyahu came up short in previous rounds, that polished image could boost his fortunes in a fourth election.

Despite the heavy cost, Israel appears to be weathering the crisis better than many countries.

If Gantz cannot clinch a deal this week, he does not have the backing of a majority of legislators. His public support is expected to dwindle in a fourth election, leaving the once formidable challenger to Netanyahu desperate to finalize a deal.

Netanyahu is backed by 59 lawmakers, leaving him two seats short of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. If he cannot reach a deal with Gantz, he might try to lure defectors from other parties to secure a majority and avert elections.