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After three elections and political deadlock, Israel finally swears in new government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks Sunday during a swearing-in ceremony of his new unity government with election rival Benny Gantz, at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem. (Adina Valman/AP)

JERUSALEM — Israel's new government, headed once again by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was sworn into office on Sunday, ending nearly a year-and-a-half of political stalemate involving three stormy elections and multiple rounds of coalition negotiations.

The ceremony, which took place in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, in accordance with coronavirus social distancing directives, marked a fifth term for Netanyahu — his fourth consecutive term — and the first time an Israeli leader indicted on criminal charges will formally lead the country.

Netanyahu opened the televised ceremony with a speech, followed by Benny Gantz, a onetime rival turned partner, who will serve in the specially created role of alternate prime minister, as well as defense minister, for the first 18 months of the term before taking over the top job for an equal period.

The rotation is part of a complicated and somewhat unprecedented coalition agreement between Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc of political parties and Gantz’s much smaller Blue and White faction. Under the deal, both leaders will be responsible for the ministers from his own faction and have the power to veto certain government decisions made by the other side.

The arrangement has also produced the largest and perhaps most politically broad government in Israel’s history. It could spare Israelis another round of elections for at least three years, but could also hamper its ability to function.

Thirty-four ministers and around 16 deputy ministers, some in newly created offices, will manage the country as it emerges from a two-month covid-19 lockdown facing a deepening economic crisis and rising tension with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu will still head Israel’s government. But it’s a big change nonetheless.

“Benny, we worked well together during Operation Protective Edge, me as prime minister, you as chief of staff, and I am sure we will work well together in this new government serving all of Israel’s citizens,” Netanyahu said. He was referring to the 2014 war Israel fought with Hamas in Gaza. Gantz was military chief of staff at the time.

Netanyahu said it was an important day for Israel that would prevent another round of costly elections and establish a unity government to tackle the fallout of the coronavirus crisis.

“Because of the pandemic, we have decided to set our differences aside and fight together shoulder to shoulder against this massive challenge,” he said.

Gantz said the new government would end Israel’s worst political crisis and “usher in a new era of peace and reconciliation” for Israeli citizens.

“The people told us: Stop fighting between you and start working for us,” he said.

The swearing-in of what critics have called a bloated and indulgent government as unemployment hit its highest levels in Israel’s 72-year history was scheduled for last Thursday, but discord within Netanyahu’s Likud party over the distribution of senior portfolios led him to request more time.

Knesset liaison minister and community development minister were two of the newly formed offices aimed to compensate loyal coalition partners and senior members of his party for supporting Netanyahu. His trial in three criminal cases centered on bribery, fraud and breach of trust is due to start May 24.

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For Netanyahu, who last July surpassed the country’s founding premier, David Ben Gurion, as the longest-serving Israeli prime minister, this could be his final term in power. Some believe his current calculations are guided by a desire to leave with his legacy intact.

Netanyahu has been called a political Houdini. On his way to forming the new government, he skillfully outmaneuvered almost all of his political rivals. Initially, it was Gantz who was tasked with forming the next government. But after failing to pull together enough support for a coalition, he shocked his political partners and supporters when he announced last month he was forming an emergency unity government with Netanyahu.

At the time, he said it was to deal with the fallout from the covid-19 crisis and avoid a fourth general election.

Gantz’s surprise move led to the dissolution of his Blue and White faction and propelled his onetime partner, Yair Lapid, into the opposition. Netanyahu also forged coalition deals with individual political figures, splitting parties on both his left and his right.

Israeli leaders agree to form unity government with Netanyahu remaining prime minister for now

Tal Schneider, senior diplomatic and political correspondent for the Israeli business newspaper Globes, said the size of the government and the invention of new cabinet posts was “an insult to the public in such dire economic times.”

She said the new government could have some serious problems functioning.

“The mutual veto power between Netanyahu and Gantz makes this government highly problematic,” she said. “Nothing can be done without the agreement of both sides.”

“Gantz might agree with Netanyahu initially but at a certain point he will have to stand up and show that he is achieving something.”

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