JERUSALEM - A Jerusalem district court announced on Sunday that it was postponing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's criminal trial for two months because of restrictions arising from the outbreak of the coronavirus.
Netanyahu was scheduled to appear in court 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.
Netanyahu is accused of receiving expensive gifts from wealthy friends and offering to exchange favors with powerful media moguls. The long-ruling Israeli leader denies any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a media-orchestrated witch hunt.
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 Netanyahu announced a new series of coronavirus-related restrictions late 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 Sunday, with schools, malls 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.
Netanyahu's legal troubles stood at the center of Israel's recent parliamentary election, the third such vote in less than a year. As previous elections last April and September, the March 2 vote also ended inconclusively.
Netanyahu's opponent, Benny Gantz, refuses to sit with him in the government and has been looking to push for legislation in the incoming parliament that would bar anyone indicted for a crime from leading a government — in effect disqualifying Netanyahu from remaining prime minister.
But the coronavirus crisis has raised calls for an emergency unity government instead. Netanyahu formally extended an offer Sunday to Gantz to join a government aimed at at halting the spread of the virus, suggesting two frameworks, including one that would see an alternating leadership between them over the course of four years.
"The state of Israel needs it. The people of Israel expect it," Netanyahu said.
But Gantz's centrist Blue and White party seems to consider the outreach yet another ruse after what has been an extremely acrimonious campaign that included unfounded smears against Gantz.
"Netanyahu, let's not manipulate the public. If you're interested in unity, why postpone your trial at 1 a.m. and send an 'emergency unity' outline to the press, rather than sending your negotiating team to a meeting," Gantz responded on Twitter. "As opposed to you, I will continue to support every appropriate governmental measure, leaving political considerations aside. When you get serious, we can talk."
His fellow party leader and former military chief Moshe Yaalon was even more blunt, comparing Netanyahu's conduct to that of Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
"Whoever criticized us for warning against Israel turning into Erdogan's Turkey should internalize the cynical exploitation of the corona crisis for the political needs of a man standing before trial," he said.
The anti-Netanyahu forces in the new incoming parliament command a 62-58 majority but are deeply divided among themselves, and appear unlikely to unite to form an alternative government.
Against the backdrop of the public health scare, Israel's president began a series of consultations Sunday with all the elected parties to determine who to tap as prime minister-designate. It typically goes to the leader of the largest party, which in this case would be Netanyahu, but could also go to Gantz if he secures more recommendations from lawmakers.
Given the circumstances, President Reuven Rivlin has implored for a power-sharing unity deal.
"Anyone who has watched the news in recent days understands that this is a time of trial, and that these are not regular consultations," he said. "We must now deal with forming a government as soon as possible ... at this complex time."
If the deadlock continues, Israel could see itself heading toward a fourth straight election, which experts say would have disastrous effects on the public's confidence in their elected officials and electoral system — regardless of the corona crisis.