Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and his former rival Benny Gantz hailed the end of an unprecedented one-and-a-half-year political crisis on Sunday as they presented their long-awaited unity government.
“This is an important day for the state of Israel,” Netanyahu told the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, hours before he would be sworn in and start a fourth consecutive term in office, and one week before his corruption trial is set to start in a Jerusalem court.
On May 7, Israel’s top court rejected petitions against the indicted premier starting a fifth term in office, removing the final obstacle for the unity government and cementing the 70-year-old’s reputation as a political wizard, who survives against all odds.
“The time has come to extend the Israeli law over (Israel’s) settlements (in the occupied West Bank) and to start a new chapter in the history of Zionism,” Netanyahu said, a step that would bring peace with the Palestinians “closer” and be carried out with the approval of the U.S.
Former military chief Gantz justified his “difficult decision” to break his vow never to serve with the indicted Netanyahu, saying the choice had been “either unity, or kind of civil war”.
The two men were greeted by loud heckling by opposition lawmakers, one of whom was ushered out of the Knesset by security.
The festive parliament session – delayed twice in the past week – followed three inconclusive elections in a year.
The last of those was on March 2 – after which neither right-wing Likud party leader Netanyahu, nor centrist Blue and White alliance leader Gantz had proved able to muster a majority for a governing coalition.
Gantz broke his long-time vow never to serve with the indicted Netanyahu.
He said Israel needed a stable government to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout and could not afford a fourth election.
Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history – will share the premiership on a rotating basis with Gantz.
Netanyahu will be the first to head the biggest government in Israel’s history for a period of 18 months.
He told parliament that Gantz would replace him on Nov. 17, 2021.
While Netanyahu is premier, Gantz is to serve as “alternate prime minister” – a new, specially created title – and defence minister.
Netanyahu met members of his Likud almost up until the start of the Knesset session, completing the distribution of portfolios only shortly before.
His trial on charges of corruption is set to begin on Sunday, May 24. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Incoming opposition leader Yair Lapid slammed the unprecedented size – at least 34, and up to 36 ministers – of the government as wasteful, as more than a quarter of Israel’s working population had filed for unemployment benefits amid the coronavirus lockdown.
“You can place one minister next to the bed of each coronavirus patient,” he said cynically.