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New Israeli Government ends 508 days of deadlock

What happened: Israel’s new government of 34 ministers was sworn in on Sunday following three national elections and 508 days since the end of the 34th government. The Knesset approved the new coalition by a vote of 73 to 46.

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in for his fourth consecutive term and his fifth time overall. For the first time in Israeli history, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz was sworn in as “alternate prime minister and future prime minister”. He will also serve as Minister of Defence for the first 18 months.
  • Following the ceremony, the new government held its first cabinet meeting in the Knesset’s ceremonial Chagall Hall so that ministers could sit separately and conform to social distancing measures. Netanyahu outlined the new government’s priorities, primarily to deal with the coronavirus: “So long as the virus is here and there is no vaccine, it can come back overnight.” The second priority would be to pass a budget and revive the economy. The third issue would be preventing Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and their nuclear project. The fourth was fighting the allegations of war crimes in the International Criminal Court (ICC), which Netanyahu described as a “rare strategic threat to Israel”. The fifth was the annexation of settlements and the Jordan Valley with US approval. Netanyahu said: “These regions are the cradle of the Jewish people. It is time to extend Israel’s law over them. This step won’t bring us further away from peace, it will get us closer. The truth is, and everyone knows it, that the hundreds of thousands of settlers in Judea and Samaria will always stay put in any future deal.”
  • The Knesset also elected a new speaker, Yariv Levin from Likud, who committed to serve all sectors of the population, but warned of growing intervention in legislation by the Supreme Court.
  • The presumed Leader of the Opposition Yair Lapid told the Knesset during the ceremony: “Israelis deserves better. We’ll be here to remind them that it can be different. There is an alternative, a different leadership. Not a leadership that cares only about its own jobs and seat. A leadership committed to values … to love Judaism but to fight religious coercion. To stand against racism. To fight corruption. To protect our democracy from those who seek to destroy it. And those people are sat before me now. To take care of people with special needs and the weakest in society. To build a government that doesn’t throw out the LGBT community, that doesn’t insult our Druze brothers and sisters with insulting legislation. To lead us on a national centrist, liberal, patriotic path. Of a free market economy that isn’t beholden to special interests. A leadership that will make this building reconnect to Israel.”

Context: The new government has been heavily criticised for being bloated and expensive, particularly at a time of economic hardship and a million newly unemployed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Netanyahu defended the largest government in Israel’s history by explaining that the alternative, another election, would have cost even more.

  • There was also scepticism that Netanyahu would honour the coalition agreement when it came to the rotation. After the ceremony Netanyahu told Channel 12 News, “I will fulfil exactly, but exactly, what is written in the agreement.”
  • The ceremony was delayed several days to allow Netanyahu to divide his portion of ministries among Likud MKs. Several high profile Likud figures were left disappointed. Among them, former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, whom Netanyahu had promised would be his candidate for the finance ministry during the election campaign. After losing out on the treasury, Barkat had insisted on an “operational” ministry and turned down minor ministries he considered empty of content so as not to waste taxpayers’ money. Gidon Saar, who competed unsuccessfully against Netanyahu in a Likud leadership contest last December will also remain a backbencher.
  • There are also some oddities in the new government. Ze’ev Elkin was given the title of Minister for Further Education (taken from within the education ministry) and Water Resources (taken from energy) as well as responsibility for handling the ICC issue (taken from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Dudi Amsalem was given the title of Minister Responsible for Liaison between the Government and Knesset, but was also made responsible for the Digital Israel initiative, the Cyber Authority, the Companies Authority and the Civil Service Commission. Tzipi Hotoveli was given a new ministry of Settlement Affairs, which includes responsibility of the settlement division and pre-army academies. She is tipped to be the Israel’s new Ambassador to the UK in the next few months and will then be replaced by Tzachi Hanegbi. Channel 12 News noted the irony that Hanegbi’s appointment would be a “closing of a circle” of sorts as back in 2006 when he was part of the centrist Kadima party he campaigned to remove settlements.

Looking ahead: The swearing-in of the new government took place one week before Netanyahu’s trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. It is due to begin on 24 May, after the original start date was delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

  • The new government has until August to pass a budget. It is expected to include cuts in public spending as well as possible rise in taxes. According to the rotation agreement, Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz will take over on 17 November 2021.