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New Israeli Gov’t Sworn Into Office, Ending 18-Month Political Saga
Likud leader and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (right), walks to the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem on Sunday to be sworn in as head of a controversial unity government that includes the centrist Blue and White party. (Alex Kolomiensky - pool/AFP via Getty Images)

New Israeli Gov’t Sworn Into Office, Ending 18-Month Political Saga

Netanyahu to serve as prime minister until November 2021, when Gantz slated to take over

Following two successive, albeit brief, delays last week, and after two inconclusive elections in April and September 2019, Israel on Sunday inaugurated its first permanent government in 18 months.

The swearing-in ceremony, originally scheduled for this past Wednesday and then postponed 24 hours to accommodate US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s lightning visit to the Jewish state, was pushed back again due to disagreements within Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party over the allocation of ministerial portfolios.

While a third consecutive national vote in March likewise appeared to have ended in a stalemate, subsequent politicking resulted in a coalition agreement between Netanyahu and Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz – but not before the latter broke away from his political allies in the Yesh Atid and Telem parties, with whom he had run on a combined electoral slate in all three elections.

The new government was also made possible when the country’s Supreme Court rejected numerous petitions demanding that Netanyahu be prevented from leading a government while under indictment in three separate corruption cases.

Overall, the ruling coalition will comprise 73 lawmakers from the right-wing Likud (36 seats) and Jewish Home (1) parties; the centrist Blue and White (15); the ultra-Orthodox Shas (9) and United Torah Judaism (7); the center-left Labor (2); and the center-right Derech Eretz (2) and Gesher (1) parties.

According to the coalition deal, Netanyahu will remain prime minister until November 17, 2021, when he is replaced by Gantz, who in the interim is defense minister and “alternate” premier. Netanyahu will subsequently serve in that latter capacity.

“We decided to form a unity government and avoid a fourth election that would have caused divisiveness and wasted [more than $550 million],” Netanyahu said during an address to parliament on Sunday amid heavy criticism over the size of the government.

For his part, Gantz stressed that “the worst political crisis Israel has known is over” and implied that his decision to join forces with Netanyahu had prevented something akin to civil war.

In fact, the unprecedented year-and-a-half political saga created a widespread public perception, manifest in ongoing protests, that the country’s leaders are more interested in advancing their own interests as opposed to the interests of those who democratically elected them.

Seemingly reinforcing this position is a government that is the most bloated in Israel’s history, with 35 ministers – a number that will rise to 36 after six months – and 16 deputy ministers. The associated expense, for which taxpayers are on the hook, has raised the ire of millions of Israelis reeling from the economic shock caused by a two-month nationwide lockdown imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Of particular note, Gantz allies Gabi Ashkenazi and Avi Nissenkorn are serving as foreign minister and justice minister, respectively, whereas the Likud’s Yariv Levin has assumed the role of parliament speaker, thus controlling the Knesset’s agenda. Among the ministries that Likud members are heading up are the coveted Finance, Health, Education and Transportation ministries, while Blue and White lawmakers will control the Strategic Affairs, Tourism, Agriculture and Science and Technology portfolios.

The ministerial appointments were split nearly evenly (19-16) between the pro-Netanyahu and pro-Gantz blocs, despite the former having more than triple the latter’s representation in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. In accordance with the power-sharing deal, the votes of only 16 cabinet members from Netanyahu’s side will, for the time being, be counted during sessions, thereby ensuring equal representation between the blocs.

This political calculus forced Netanyahu to relegate numerous Likud stalwarts to backbenchers, including Gideon Sa’ar, who lost an internal leadership primary vote to the prime minister in December. Also passed over was former high-ranking Likud minister Avi Dichter and up-and-comer Nir Barkat, until recently mayor of Jerusalem.

Netanyahu’s inability to offer more ministerial positions was reportedly a mitigating factor in the decision by the right-wing Yamina party (5 seats) – which is headed by outgoing defense minister Naftali Bennett – to sit in the opposition, although one of its members, Rafi Peretz, defected to the coalition.

The opposition will be headed by Yair Lapid’s and Moshe Ya’alon’s Yesh Atid-Telem list of 16 legislators, which was formed in the wake of the split with Gantz.

In a blistering attack on his former partners, Lapid on Sunday accused Gantz and Ashkenazi, both former military chiefs, of having “surrendered to a man [Netanyahu]… who in a week will start a criminal trial for breach of trust, for bribery and for fraud. In the real world, you do not let your children play with someone like that.”

The other parties on the outside looking in are the primarily Arab Joint List (15) and left-wing Meretz (3), as well as one Labor parliamentarian who refused to serve under Netanyahu. Also joining the opposition is the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party (7), whose leader, Avigdor Liberman, had for over a year been anointed Israel’s political kingmaker due to Netanyahu’s and Gantz’s inability to form a majority coalition independent from each other without his support.

“If there are mixed feelings about the government, it is likely due to its magnitude, as there is no need for such a large one, with invented ministries,” Prof. Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told The Media Line.

He was referring to newly created posts such as the minister of community strengthening and advancement, and the minister of settlements.

He nevertheless emphasized that Sunday’s development marked “a good day for Israel, as the nation does not need a fourth election and, furthermore, there is now a [broad] government, which is always beneficial.”

In terms of priorities, Inbar noted that the most acute issues for the government would be “dealing with the health implications and economic fallout caused by the coronavirus. Afterwards, the focus will shift to extending Israeli law to parts of Judea and Samaria,” the biblical names for the regions encompassing the West Bank.

“The American position in this regard is clear,” he continued, “which is that annexation can move forward as long as there is a willingness by the Israeli government to enter negotiations on the basis of President [Donald] Trump’s Middle East peace plan, which calls for a [simultaneous] construction freeze in areas designated for a future Palestinian state.”

Inbar described this opportunity as “historic” and contended that the move should not be considered unilateral so long as Jerusalem maintains the backing of the White House.

“Those who describe the situation otherwise are trying to minimize the support for Israel of the most powerful country in the world,” he said.

Indeed, Trump Administration officials have repeatedly stressed that it is Jerusalem’s prerogative alone to determine whether to officially incorporate parts of the West Bank currently being mapped out by a joint US-Israeli committee.

In this respect, the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition deal stipulates that the prime minister can, as of July 1, “bring the agreement reached with the US on the application of sovereignty [in the West Bank] for the approval of the cabinet and or the Knesset.”

This, in turn, has prompted tremendous pushback from some countries in the European Union, whose foreign policy chief recently threatened to sanction the Jewish state if it pressed ahead with annexations.

While much of the Arab World has remained relatively muted, Jordanian King Abdullah II this weekend insinuated that upending the status quo in the Palestinian-claimed West Bank could prompt him to annul the landmark 1994 peace accord between Amman and Jerusalem.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has similarly vowed to tear up all past agreements with Israel if annexation is actualized.

Alon Pinkas, an adviser to past prime ministers Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, envisions Netanyahu nonetheless beginning a process “based mainly on declarations that will lead to the de facto annexation of the Jordan Valley,” which has long been viewed across most of the Israeli political spectrum as the Jewish state’s eventual eastern security front.

“But I doubt that there will be legislation passed to formalize this status this year,” he qualified to The Media Line. “A lot will depend on the dynamic between Netanyahu, on the one hand, and Gantz and Ashkenazi, who are less inclined to push ahead due to the anticipated consequences related to Israel’s [international standing].”

While Pinkas described as “problematic” any government that will ultimately have a combined 52 ministers and deputy ministers at a time when over 1 million Israelis have been laid off due to the coronavirus, he explained that a fourth election was “unlikely to have yielded a significantly different” result, meaning a government with an actual agenda that is not “monstrously large because of appointments related to political pressures” rather than need.

“It is odd that in three sequential votes, the electorate said no to Netanyahu, and it is unclear whether Gantz should have done things differently. Some accuse [him] of betraying his electorate because [his foremost campaign promise was] to oust Netanyahu, while others think that he did what was needed during a serious health and economic crisis,” the ex-adviser noted.

“The merit of this government is,” he stated, “really in the eye of the beholder.”

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