Even the medical and economic crises brought on by the coronavirus outbreak have so far failed to end an unprecedented political deadlock that has pushed Israel into three inconclusive elections in the last year, and perhaps now a fourth.

A banner depicts Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, and Israel Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as part of Blue and White party's campaign ahead of the upcoming election, in Tel Aviv, Israel February 17, 2020.
A banner depicts Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, and Israel Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as part of Blue and White party's campaign ahead of the upcoming election, in Tel Aviv, Israel February 17, 2020. (Reuters)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main rival Benny Gantz missed a midnight deadline to reach a unity government deal but agreed early on Thursday to continue talks.

Even the medical and economic crises brought on by the coronavirus outbreak have so far failed to end an unprecedented political deadlock that has pushed Israel into three inconclusive elections in the last year, and perhaps now a fourth.

Gantz and Netanyahu have been negotiating a power-sharing deal that would keep the right-wing premier in office for another 18 months, Israeli media reported.

Under the arrangement, centrist former general Gantz would take over after that.

Gantz, a relative newcomer to politics, was given the first chance to put together a government after the most recent election, in March.

President Reuven Rivlin, who is overseeing the talks, said on Monday that progress justified his decision to grant Gantz a two-day extension to hash out a deal with Netanyahu.

But Gantz's mandate expired at midnight on Wednesday after a last-minute attempt by the two leaders' envoys to clinch a deal. That complicates plans for economic recovery once the coronavirus outbreak is brought under control, and the country's stringent lockdown is eased.

Without a deal, it will be up to parliament to pick a candidate who would then have 14 days to form a government. Failure to do so would automatically dissolve parliament and trigger a snap election.

Netanyahu and Gantz released a joint statement early on Thursday saying they would continue negotiations later in the day. Talks technically can continue until parliament is formally dissolved.

Gantz had previously said he would not serve in a government led by Netanyahu, who is facing indictment on corruption charges but denies any wrongdoing. The trial is due to begin next month.

But the enormity of the coronavirus crisis prompted Gantz to break his campaign promise and to consider a deal, a move that angered many of his anti-Netanyahu supporters.

The outcome appeared to weaken Gantz while strengthening Netanyahu, whose caretaker government is overseeing the country's response to the coronavirus crisis.

A Monday poll from Israel's Channel 12 news said that if an election were held now, Netanyahu's Likud party would see a four-seat boost to 40 in the 120-member Knesset, while Gantz's weakened Blue and White party would win only 19.

The poll also found that some 64% of citizens were satisfied with Netanyahu's handling of the pandemic.

Israel has reported over 12,500 Covid-19 cases and at least 130 deaths. Restrictions have confined most Israelis to their homes, forcing businesses to close and sending unemployment to more than 25%.

Source: Reuters