After three brutal elections, a year and a half of political paralysis and another delay because of political infighting in his Likud party over prime positions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was finally set to swear in his new government today.
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. Having previously refused to join with Netanyahu, who has been indicted on corruption charges and faces an upcoming criminal trial.
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 ministers and 16 deputies.
Gantz will start out as defence 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 to add up to 73 out of parliament’s 120 members.
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 virtual veto power over the other’s major decisions.
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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 percent. But because Netanyahu’s coalition includes several smaller parties, he has had to create Cabinet ministries to hand out. He has faced a mini-insurgency from angry senior members ahead of the planned swearing-in ceremony on Thursday. Again he was unable to meet the deadline and Netanyahu asked for a delay to solve his internal party crisis.
The deal has already led to the dissolution of Gantz’s Blue and White party after he reneged on his central campaign promise not to serve under Netanyahu. Their much-scrutinised coalition deal could only come about after the country’s Supreme Court ruled it had no legal grounds to block it.
Despite the criticism, Gantz argued that teaming with Netanyahu offered the country its only way out of the prolonged stalemate and prevented Israel from being dragged once again to another costly election that would have been it’s fourth in just over a year.
The main point of contention for critics has been the newly created position of “alternate prime minister,” a post that 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.
The new position as ‘Alternate Prime Minister’ is set up in a way that he can still enjoy all the privileges 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 favours 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.