Middle East

Netanyahu’s new Israeli government approved, eyes West Bank annexations

JERUSALEM (REUTERS) – Israeli parliament approved on Sunday (May 17) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu new unity government, ending more than a year of political deadlock but still facing a trial starting in a week for alleged corruption.

His power-sharing agreement with former election rival, centrist Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, opens the way for the right-wing Mr Netanyahu to proceed towards a pledged annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, land Palestinians seek for a state.

Under his accord with Mr Gantz, after three inconclusive elections, Mr Netanyahu will remain prime minister for 18 months before handing over to his new partner.

Mr Gantz, a former armed forces chief, will be Mr Netanyahu’s defence minister and “alternate prime minister”, a new position that Mr Netanyahu will hold when Mr Gantz is in charge.

By assuming that “alternate” premiership once he hands over to Mr Gantz, Mr Netanyahu hopes to avoid having to resign from the government under legal rules that allow a prime minister to remain in office even if charged with a crime.

Israel’s longest-serving leader, Mr Netanyahu, now 70, first came to power in 1996 and has served three consecutive terms since 2009. He goes on trial on May 24 on charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud, which he denies.

“The people wanted unity, and that is what it got,” Mr Netanyahu told Parliament, citing a desire to steer clear of a fourth election and the need for a national battle against the coronavirus crisis.

Mr Gantz, in his address to the legislature, said: “The biggest political crisis in Israel’s history is over.”

Lawmakers ratified the new administration by a vote of 73 to 46.

Mr Netanyahu can now push forward his plan to extend Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank, territory Palestinians want for their own independent state. 

“These regions are where the Jewish nation was born and rose. It is time to apply Israeli law on them and write another great chapter in the annals of Zionism,” he said.

But while he has set July 1 as a starting point for Cabinet discussions on the volatile issue,  there is no publicly stated deadline for approving annexation of land Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Palestinians have vehemently opposed such a move, urging international sanctions against Israel in response. It would be certain to heighten tensions in the West Bank and Gaza that could ignite anti-Israeli violence.

“These colonial and expansionist positions confirm once again his (Netanyahu’s) ideological enmity towards peace,” the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

GANTZ CHANGE OF HEART

Mr Gantz, 60, had cited the charges against Mr Netanyahu in again pledging to his voters after the latest election in March that he would not serve in a government with Mr Netanyahu.

Angering many of his supporters and splitting his own party, he made a deal in the end, saying the coronavirus crisis made unity an imperative.

“The coronavirus crisis is an excuse to hold a corrupt celebration at the taxpayers’ expense,” new opposition leader Yair Lapid, who split from Mr Gantz, said in parliament. “You are establishing the biggest and most wasteful government in Israeli history.”

The Cabinet will have a record 36 ministers, with several new posts created to ensure both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz could dole out Cabinet seats to loyalists – deal-making that boosted the veteran leader’s reputation as a political survivor.

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