Jerusalem, 17 May 2020 (dpa/MIA) – After three inconclusive elections since late 2018 – and multiple last-minute delays – Israel‘s long-awaited new government finally was sworn in on Sunday, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowing the time had come to annex West Bank settlements pending US approval.
Netanyahu and his former rival, Benny Gantz, both hailed their “emergency government of national unity” as the end of an unprecedented one-and-a-half-year political crisis.
But the make-up of the coalition, with seven factions with widely different world views, is likely to pose immediate challenges. These are likely to include a cabinet or parliament vote, possible as early as July 1, on whether Israel should extend sovereignty over parts of the occupied West Bank that house settlements, on what Netanyahu notes is Biblical land.
Passing a long-needed budget agreed by all, with a deficit heavily weighed down because of the coronavirus crisis, is also likely to prove difficult.
Minutes before Netanyahu, of the right-wing Likud party, and Gantz, of the centrist Blue and White alliance, were sworn in, 73 lawmakers voted confidence in the government, while 47 voted against, with no abstentions.
“This is an important day for the state of Israel,” Netanyahu earlier told the 120-seat Knesset, as he was set to start a fourth consecutive term in office and a fifth term in total, one week before the start of his corruption trial in a Jerusalem court.
On May 7, Israel‘s top court rejected petitions against the indicted premier, removing the final obstacle for the unity government.
“The time has come to extend the Israeli law over [Israel‘s] settlements [in the occupied West Bank] and to start a new chapter in the history of Zionism,” Netanyahu said during Sunday’s session, a step that would not push peace with the Palestinian further away, but rather bring it “closer.”
Former military chief Gantz justified his “difficult decision” to break his vow never to serve with the indicted Netanyahu, saying the choice had been “either unity, or kind of civil war.”
The two men were greeted by loud heckling by opposition lawmakers, one of whom was ushered out of the Knesset by security.
The festive parliament session – postponed twice in the past week – ended a 17-month period during which Netanyahu continued to serve as the head of a caretaker cabinet.
Since his last coalition collapsed in late 2018, until late last month amid the coronavirus crisis, no one had been able to form a majority coalition following elections in April and September of 2019 and in March 2020.
The pandemic and its devastating economic impact prompted Gantz finally to break his vow – maintained during three consecutive elections – never to serve with the indicted Netanyahu. He argued Israel needed a stable government to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout and could not afford a fourth election.
Netanyahu, in office since 2009 and the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history – will share the premiership on a rotating basis with Gantz.
Netanyahu will be the first to head the biggest government in Israel‘s history, for a period of 18 months. He told parliament that Gantz would replace him on November 17, 2021.
While Netanyahu is premier, Gantz is to serve as “alternate prime minister” – a new, specially created title – and defence minister.
Netanyahu met members of his Likud almost up until the start of the Knesset session, completing the distribution of portfolios only shortly before.
His trial on charges of corruption is set to begin on May 24. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Incoming opposition leader Yair Lapid slammed the unprecedented size – at least 34, and up to 36 ministers – of the government as wasteful, as more than a quarter of Israel‘s working population had filed for unemployment benefits amid the coronavirus lockdown.
“You can place one minister next to the bed of each coronavirus patient,” he said cynically.