By DOV LIPMAN
(JNS) – After more than 500 days of political instability and three consecutive national elections, Israel’s 35th government was officially sworn in on Sunday, May 17.
The installation of a unity government on Sunday concludes months of intense political battles that challenged Israel’s fragile parliamentary system and brings together former political opponents Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud Party, and Benny Gantz, former IDF chief of staff and head of the Blue and White Party.
As part of the coalition agreement, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for the first 18 months of the government’s term, with Gantz serving as vice prime minister and minister of defense. On Nov. 17, 2021, Gantz is scheduled to become prime minister with Netanyahu serving as vice prime minister.
Path To Reconciliation
During the swearing-in ceremony, Netanyahu declared to the Knesset that “the public wants a unity government, and that’s what the public will get. We decided to form a unity government and avoid a fourth election that would have wasted 2 billion shekels.”
Gantz proudly told the Knesset that “the worst political crisis in its history” is over. He called for an end to the divisiveness that has hurt Israel through the election campaigns and the need for the new government to usher in an “era of reconciliation.” Gantz turned to Netanyahu during his inauguration speech and said, “After 11 years at the helm, you accepted the decision of the voters that said they wanted unity. That was a brave and important decision.”
Many of the terms of the coalition agreement, including the prime-ministerial rotation and a bloated executive branch, including an unprecedented 36 ministers, were required to bring the political opponents together and prevent yet another costly election cycle. In three consecutive elections, neither Netanyahu nor Gantz was able to form a majority government with their natural political allies.
Coalition chairman Knesset member Miki Zohar of Likud told JNS that “this government is not ideal. But we needed to prevent a fourth election, and many had to compromise on core values and beliefs in order to move Israel forward with a government.”
During the ceremony, Netanyahu outlined the major goals of the new government. He said that a special Cabinet was being formed to prepare the medical system for a possible second wave of COVID-19, following a successful initial response to the coronavirus pandemic. He announced that the government will pass “a budget of hope” to assist small business and all employees who have been hurt by the related financial crisis.
The new government is pledging to help citizens expedite regulations and bureaucracy in order to quickly receive fiscal assistance.
Netanyahu also declared that “it is time to apply Israeli law” to Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, as well as the strategic Jordan Valley along Israel’s easternmost border.
“These regions are where the Jewish nation was born and rose. It is time to apply Israeli law on them and write another great chapter in the annals of Zionism,” he said.
Netanyahu has set July 1 as the starting point for discussion over annexation. Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Netanyahu and Gantz and he urged progress on President Donald Trump’s peace plan.
Netanyahu further added that his new government will continue to combat the Iranian regime and will also battle the International Criminal Court’s attempts to prosecute Israel for what he called “building a kindergarten in [the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of] Gilo and homes in [the Samaria settlement of] Shiloh.”
“It Won’t Be Easy”
Despite Netanyahu’s reference to the formal application of Israeli sovereignty in the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria, outgoing Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich of the right-wing Yamina Party told JNS that he is skeptical about whether the bold diplomatic move will actually take place.
During the final negotiations of the coalition agreement, the words Judea and Samaria were removed from the clause regarding the application of sovereignty in order to appease members of Gantz’s center-left Blue and White Party.
“It won’t be easy for this government to apply Israeli sovereignty on all the areas of Jewish settlements if they could not even dare mention the words Judea and Samaria explicitly in the government’s base principles,” said Smotrich.
Yamina, which supports the application of sovereignty and was a loyal member of Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc throughout the extended election cycle, has decided not to join the government and head to the opposition.
New Government’s Principles
Netanyahu indicated in his inauguration speech that he hoped Yamina, led by outgoing Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, would join the government and be part of diplomatic efforts to officially extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jewish communities in the West Bank.
In addition to responding to the coronavirus and applying sovereignty to the above areas, the new government’s core principles include:
- The government will strengthen national security, will work to attain peace, and will insure the peace and security of all the state’s citizens;
- The government will work to close the social gaps in Israel and to provide equal opportunity for all the state’s citizens;
- The government will work to bridge all parts of the nation and the state, and will work a national appeasement with a special cabinet to address this issue; and
- The government will protect the Jewish identity of the state, while also respecting all religions and traditions according to the values of the Declaration of Independence.
Incoming opposition leader Yair Lapid, who broke off from Gantz’s Blue and White Party during coalition negotiations, criticized the unity government, saying that “the coronavirus is being used as an excuse to form the most corrupt, inflated government in Israeli history with 36 ministers. Today, this [Knesset] building has lost the respect of the Israeli public.”
Opposition member MK Moshe Ya’alon, a former Likud defense minister, and former member of Blue and White, told JNS that “the new ministers are not swearing their allegiance to the State of Israel because they are not acting for the benefit of the state. Rather, they are pledging their allegiance to a prime minister who has been indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in order to provide him with immunity and a defense shield.”
Trials on corruption charges in three separate cases against Netanyahu are scheduled to start later this month.