On Sunday evening Israel is set to swear in its largest government in history with two prime ministers in rotation, ending 18 months-long political deadlock.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formally announced Wednesday evening he had succeeded in forming a new government and planed to swear in on Thursday evening but it took another three-day delay because of political infighting.
“The people wanted unity, and that is what it got,” Netanyahu told the Knesset on Sunday, citing a desire to avoid a fourth election since April 2019 and the national battle against the coronavirus crisis.
Netanyahu and rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz of Blue & White 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.
“This is an important day for the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said Sunday. “The new government was established according to the will of most citizens and will serve all citizens.”
“We have chosen, with great responsibility, to establish an emergency government of national unity,” he said.
“If we had gone into a fourth election – the additional cost would have amounted to NIS 2 billion. The additional cost of a unity government [was roughly] NIS 85 million a year, infinitely lower than the cost of additional elections,” he said.
“That would have been a real waste. It would have forced us to defer the fallout of the coronavirus to an undetermined date.”
Over the weekend, both Netanyahu and former IDF chief Gantz announced their appointments for the new government – the most bloated in Israeli history with an expected 36 ministers and 16 deputies.
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.
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 more than 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, and he faced a mini-insurgency from angry senior members ahead of the planned swearing-in ceremony on Thursday. Unable to meet a deadline, Netanyahu asked for a delay to solve his internal party crisis.
Among the political casualties was Likud MK and former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, who was not appointed as minister despite his popularity among the party’s voters.
“Barkat deserves a senior role in both the Likud and the government,” Netanyahu said Sunday. “Unfortunately it did not work out before the government was sworn in.”
The prime minister said he would endeavor to find a senior role for the former mayor in the future.
The deal has already led to the dissolution of Gantz’s Blue & White alliance after – to the fury of many his party’s voters – he reneged on his central campaign promise not to serve under Netanyahu, who has been indicted on corruption charges goes on trial later this month. Their much-scrutinized coalition deal could only come about after the High 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 its fourth in just over a year.
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 the finance minister.
Yariv Levin, perhaps Netanyahu’s closest ally, will become the new Knesset speaker, a position vacated by Gantz as he becomes defense minister. The coalition will also include ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas and some other individual defectors to add up to 73 out of the 120 members.
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.
Still, 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, in particular for Gantz’s Blue & White party.