JERUSALEM – After three deadlocked and divisive elections, a year and a half of political paralysis and another three-day delay because of political infighting in his Likud party, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally swore in his new government on Sunday.
The Knesset, Israel's parliament, passed a vote of confidence in Netanyahu's new administration to end over 500 days of upheaval.
Over the weekend, both Netanyahu and his rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz announced their appointments for the new government — the most bloated in Israeli history with an expected 36 Cabinet ministers and 16 deputies.
Netanyahu and Gantz, a former military chief, announced last month they would be putting their differences aside to join forces to steer the country through the coronavirus crisis and its severe economic fallout.
Their controversial power-sharing deal calls for Netanyahu to serve as prime minister for the government’s first 18 months before being replaced by Gantz for the next 18 months. Their blocs will also have a similar number of ministers and mutual veto power over most major decisions.
Critics have already accused the government of being out of touch by creating so many Cabinet posts at a time when unemployment has soared to 25% as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. But because Netanyahu’s bloc includes several smaller parties, he still only has a limited number of Cabinet ministries to hand out to the Likud rank and file.
A mini-insurgency by angry senior Likud members forced Netanyahu to seek a delay in the swearing-in ceremony last Thursday. To mollify his backbenchers, Netanyahu created a series of new ministries with questionable responsibilities, such as “community development,” “settlement affairs” and “higher education and water resources” and a minister to be the liaison between the parliament and the Cabinet. Each ministry means paying for drivers, staff and office space.
Yair Lapid, the new opposition leader, said the machinations have led to a loss of “trust of the Israeli public.”
“The coronavirus is an excuse for a corrupt party at the expense of the taxpayer. After all the empty talk of an ‘emergency government,’ the government being formed today is the largest and most wasteful in the history of the country,” he said. “It’s not just the waste, it’s the contempt. The complete contempt for the crisis facing the Israeli public.”
The deal has already led to the dissolution of Gantz’s alliance with Lapid after he reneged on his central campaign promise not to serve under Netanyahu, who has been indicted on corruption charges and faces a criminal trial starting next week. Their much-scrutinized coalition deal could only come about after the country’s Supreme Court ruled it had no legal grounds to block it.
Gantz and Netanyahu fought to stalemates in three bitter election campaigns over the past year.
After the most recent vote in March, Gantz appeared to secure enough support in parliament to pass legislation that would have barred the indicted Netanyahu from continuing as prime minister. But in a stunning about face, Gantz agreed to enter a partnership with his arch rival.
Despite the criticism, Gantz argued that teaming with Netanyahu offered the country its only way out of the prolonged stalemate and prevented what would have been a fourth costly election in just over a year.
In his speech to parliament, Netanyahu acknowledged that compromises had to be made but that another election would have been far more devastating.
“The public wants a unity government and this is what the public is getting today,” he said. “We chose to serve the country together.”
Gantz will start out as defense minister, with party colleague and fellow retired military chief Gabi Ashkenazi serving as foreign minister. Netanyahu’s top deputy in Likud, outgoing Foreign Minister Israel Katz, will become finance minister. Yariv Levin, perhaps Netanyahu’s closest ally, will become the new parliament speaker.
The coalition will also include a pair of ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties and some other individual defectors. It was voted into office by a 73-46 margin, with one lawmaker in the 120-seat Knesset skipping the vote.
The main point of contention for critics has been the newly created position of “alternate prime minister.”
The post, initially held by Gantz, could allow Netanyahu to remain in office even after the swap and throughout his corruption trial and a potential appeals process. There are also deep suspicions about whether Netanyahu will keep his part of the bargain and ultimately cede the premiership to Gantz.
Gantz took his oath of office as “the alternate prime minister and future prime minister” immediately after Netanyahu was sworn in as prime minister.
The new position is supposed to enjoy all the trappings of the prime minister, including an official residence and, key for Netanyahu, an exemption from a law that requires public officials who are not prime minister to resign if charged with a crime.
Netanyahu has been indicted on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving allegedly trading favors with wealthy media moguls. He denies any wrongdoing and blames the charges on a media-orchestrated plot to oust him.
Since his indictment last fall he has repeatedly lashed out at the country’s legal system as well, with his political allies taking special aim at the high court and accusing it of overreach and political interference. His legal woes and fitness to serve were central issues in the recent election campaigns.
Netanyahu also pledged to push forth with controversial plans to annex parts of the West Bank.
Netanyahu’s nationalist base is eager to push for annexation before the U.S. elections in November — after which Trump could be replaced by Joe Biden, who has said he opposes unilateral annexation. The coalition agreement allows him to present a proposal as soon as July 1.
“The time has come for anyone who believes in the justness of our rights in the land of Israel to join a government led by me to bring about a historic process together," he said.