Israel swears in unity govt led by Netanyahu

Harinder Mishra

Jerusalem, May 17 (PTI) Israel's new government was sworn in on Sunday under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, bringing an end to the longest political deadlock in the country's history which saw a caretaker government in charge for over 500 days and three back-to-back general elections with no clear verdict.

The vote of confidence in the new government was passed with 73 votes in favour and 46 against in the Knesset or the Parliament.

Netanyahu, who succeeded in forming a unity government with his rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party after failing to secure a clear mandate in the elections, will have the most bloated ministry in Israel's history with 36 ministers and 16 deputy ministers.

'Stability is acquired with broad governments,' 70-year-old Netanyahu told Army Radio, immediately after the swearing-in ceremony.

Gantz was sworn in as defense minister and alternate prime minister, to replace Netanyahu in 18 months as per the controversial power-sharing deal.

The new ministers include the first female ultra-Orthodox minister, Omer Yankelevich (Diaspora affairs), and the first Ethiopia-born minister, Pnina Tamano-Shata (Immigration and absorption), in Israel’s history. The Knesset also elected Yariv Levin, from Netanyahu’s Likud party, as its new Speaker.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid lashed out at the new government and particularly at his old associates, Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, who broke their pre-poll alliance to join hands with Netanyahu.

'Two IDF (Israel Defence Forces) Chiefs of Staff surrendered to a man with three serious criminal indictments,' Lapid said in reference to his former associates Gantz and Ashkenazi, who would be serving as the foreign minister.

'You are swearing loyalty today to a man who in a week will start a criminal trial for breach of trust, for bribery and for fraud. In the real world you don't let your children play with a man like that. In this building, he is the Prime Minister,' he said at the Knesset in scathing comments against the new government.

Netanyahu has been indicted in three criminal cases and faces trial that is set to begin on May 24. He has denied any wrongdoing.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu announced that he has succeeded in forming a unity government in letters sent to President Reuven Rivlin.

'It's time to apply the Israeli law and write another glorified chapter in the history of Zionism,' Netanyahu, who last year in July became Israel's longest serving Prime Minister surpassing David Ben-Gurion, said ahead of the swearing-in.

The government was to be sworn-in on Thursday but internal squabbles in the ruling Likud party over ministerial claims postponed it.

'The time has come for anyone who believes in the justness of our rights in the Land of Israel to join a government led by me to bring about a historic process together,' Netanyahu said on the Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank.

The issue is 'on the agenda' only because I acted on it personally,' he stressed, saying he pushed for it for three years, publicly and covertly.

Dismissing claims that it will harm the efforts to strike a peace deal with the Palestinians, the hawkish Israeli leader emphasised that on the contrary it will promote the chances.

“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,” Netanyahu said.

The vast majority of the international community considers Israeli settlements in the region to be illegal under the international law, and as such stands against the proposed annexation of the area and other areas of the West Bank, such as the fertile Jordan Valley.

However, Israel's close ally the US has pledged to support the move as part of its 'Deal of the Century' peace proposal unveiled earlier this year. The plan backs Israel's annexation of most Israeli settlements and the Jordan Valley as long as it enters into peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

The European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Friday that the bloc would use 'all our diplomatic capacities' to try to dissuade Israel from going ahead with the move.

Some analysts have said that the annexation could prompt a break-down in the 1994 peace treaty signed between Israel and its neighbour Jordan. A former minister of Jordan, Marwan al-Muasher, during a webinar last week, did not rule out the possibility of his country walking out of the historic agreement if Israel moves ahead with unilateral annexation.

According to the Netanyahu-Gantz pact, the government can begin moves to implement the Trump administration's peace plan from July 1.

'There will be no peace with occupation and apartheid,' said an Arab lawmaker, Yousef Jabareen.

Netanyahu praised the US’ support for the move, but added that 'Israel should rely only on itself to defend itself'.

He also claimed that the unity government between him and Gantz avoided a fourth round of elections, which would have threatened the government's response to the coronavirus crisis.

'The majority of the public is glad to accept a unity government. The public wants a unity government, and that's what the public is getting today,' he said.

Netanyahu was constantly booed by the Opposition members who shouted, 'election fraud' and 'pathological liar' while he spoke. PTI HM CPS AKJ ZH