Jerusalem, ZZZ, May 7 – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received crucial support in his bid to form a unity government Thursday, inching closer to ending more than a year of political deadlock.
Lawmakers first voted in favour of a coalition pact between Israel’s longest-serving leader and his erstwhile rival Benny Gantz, then called on President Reuven Rivlin to task Netanyahu with forming that government.
The coalition deal will see the rightwing veteran premier share power with Gantz, a centrist former military chief.
The two men plan to swear in their new administration on May 13, with Netanyahu remaining leader for 18 months, before handing over to Gantz.
The other will serve as alternate PM, a newly created position.
Representatives of Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White presented Rivlin’s office with a request, signed by 72 of the country’s 120 MPs, that Netanyahu be be mandated to form a government.
It was delivered hours ahead of a midnight (2100 GMT Thursday) deadline.
A statement from the presidency said the law allowed up to two days for possible objections before the process was finalised.
The proposed government had also been challenged in the high court, with opponents arguing Netanyahu was ineligible due to corruption indictments.
But the court ruled on Wednesday evening that there was “no legal reason to prevent the formation of a government” led by Netanyahu.
It added that the allegations against Netanyahu could be addressed in his trial, due to begin on May 24.
Netanyahu has been written off by pundits and rivals many times since taking power in 2009, but the man sometimes dubbed “the magician” has invariably found ways to remain in the hot seat.
As well as rebuilding an economy shaken by the coronavirus, the new government will also decide on the possible annexation of large parts of the West Bank, a move from which successive governments have refrained since Israel occupied the territory in the Six-Day War of 1967.
– Lost year –
Israel has been without a stable government since December 2018, holding three successive elections in which Gantz’s centrist Blue and White and Netanyahu’s Likud were near neck-and-neck.
Netanyahu has remained in power in a caretaker capacity throughout.
In January, he was charged with accepting improper gifts and illegally trading favours in exchange for positive media coverage.
He denies wrongdoing, but if the trial goes ahead as planned he will become the first serving Israeli leader to be tried.
After the third election in March, Gantz broke with large parts of Blue and White and agreed to form a unity government.
He said it was necessary to provide political stability as the country seeks to repair the economic damage wrought by a coronavirus outbreak that has infected more than 16,000 people.
Gantz’s critics, including many former allies, accused him of betraying his voters after campaigning for cleaner politics and pledging not to serve under an indicted prime minister.
“Never have so few cheated so many voters for such miserable reasons,” former Gantz ally Yair Lapid, poised to become opposition leader, tweeted Thursday.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, said neither Gantz nor Netanyahu had faith in the other’s intentions.
“There is zero trust -– this is probably the main characteristic of this political agreement,” he told journalists.
“Therefore a new regime was created whereby we have two prime ministers, both with veto power.”
– West Bank annexations? –
In its first months the government will focus on the COVID-19 response.
The country took rapid measures to lock down and has succeeded in limiting the death toll so far to just over 200, in a population of some nine million.
In recent days measures have begun to be eased, with shops and businesses partially reopening, as well as primary schools.
From July 1, the government can also decide whether to follow through with the annexation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, after President Donald Trump gave US blessing for the move, which the United Nations says violates international law.
Israel could also annex the Jordan Valley, another region Trump says he is ready to recognise as part of its sovereign territory.
Either move is liable to trigger Palestinian unrest across the West Bank as well as in the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinians see the West Bank as the mainstay of their future state and the United Nations has warned that annexation would seriously damage any hopes for lasting peace.
Plesner said if Democratic candidate Joe Biden were to beat Trump in November’s election he would likely oppose annexation, taking the idea “off the table.”
As such, he added, the government will have a “short window of opportunity (for annexation) between July and the US elections in November.”