Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his challenger Benny Gantz have been summoned by Israel’s president to an emergency meeting.
President Reuven Rivlin announced the talks after a day of consultations with the country’s political parties ahead of his decision about who should lead Israel’s next government.
It is hoped the meeting will break the deadlock that has paralysed the political system for the past year and could threaten the country’s response to the coronavirus crisis.
With rival sides evenly divided following the country’s third inconclusive election in under a year, a unity government may be the only way out of the deadlock, which comes as the government confronts an increasingly serious coronavirus threat.
The president is responsible for designating the candidate he thinks has the best chance of being able to form a government by securing a parliamentary majority.
That task has been complicated by the results of the March 2 election, in which Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party emerged as the largest single party, but fell short of a 61-seat parliamentary majority with its allies of smaller religious and nationalist parties.
Mr Netanyahu’s opponents, representing a slim 62-seat majority, recommended to Mr Rivlin on Sunday that Mr Gantz be named the prime minister-designate.
But the opposition is deeply fragmented — with the predominantly Arab Joint List and the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu among them — giving Mr Gantz slim odds of being able to cobble together a government.
Yisrael Beitenu’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman, and two members of Mr Gantz’s own Blue and White party, say they will refuse to be part of a government that relies on support from the Joint List.
Another lawmaker originally supportive of Mr Gantz has refused to endorse either side.
Mr Lieberman told the president that he supports Mr Gantz, but also called for the formation of an “emergency” unity government to deal with the coronavirus threat.
Mr Netanyahu, in his caretaker role, has invited Mr Gantz to join him in an emergency government.
Mr Gantz has left the door open to such an arrangement, but also dismissed the offers as insincere.
Facing a difficult decision, Mr Rivlin summoned the two men to his residence late on Sunday in the hope of breaking the deadlock.
Earlier, he implored for a power-sharing unity deal.
He said: “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 … at this complex time.”
Over the past week, the coronavirus outbreak has overshadowed the country’s precarious political standoff — which comes as Mr Netanyahu prepares to go on trial for corruption charges.
Mr Netanyahu got an important reprieve on Sunday when the Jerusalem court handling the case postponed his trial for two months because of restrictions connected to the coronavirus outbreak.
Mr Netanyahu was scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday to face charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in connection to a series of scandals.
But following the emergency health measures the government enacted restricting the gathering of people in public places, the court announced that it was pushing back the hearing until May 24.
Mr Netanyahu is accused of receiving expensive gifts from wealthy friends and offering to exchange favours with powerful media moguls.
The long-ruling Israeli leader denies any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a media-orchestrated witch hunt.
Mr Netanyahu’s lawyers had previously appealed for a delay, saying they needed more time to review evidence. But it was swiftly rejected on the grounds that the March 17 hearing was a procedural reading of the charges only and that the defendant’s response was not needed.
But after Mr Netanyahu announced a new series of coronavirus-related restrictions late on Saturday, including the barring of gatherings of more than 10 people, the justice ministry announced a state of emergency in the courts as well.
Much of the country ground to a standstill on Sunday, with schools, shopping centres and places of entertainment shut down.
Employees were encouraged to work from home and strict restrictions have been placed on personal interactions.
The virus has spread to more than 100 countries, infected more than 150,000 people worldwide and killed more than 5,700.
In Israel, some 200 people have been infected with no casualties yet, as severe measures seem to have proven effective so far.
– If the political deadlock continues, Israel could see itself heading towards a fourth straight election.