After three deadlocked and divisive elections, a year and a half of political paralysis and another three-day delay because of political infighting in his Likud party over coveted cabinet posts, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally oversaw the swearing-in of his new government on Sunday.
"The people wanted unity, and that is what it got," Netanyahu told the Knesset on Sunday, citing a desire to avoid a fourth election since April 2019 and the national battle against the coronavirus crisis.
Netanyahu and rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz of Blue & White announced last month they would be putting their differences aside to join forces to steer the country through the coronavirus crisis and its severe economic fallout.
Over the weekend, the two announced their appointments for the new government - the most bloated in Israeli history with an expected 36 ministers and 16 deputies.
"This is an important day for the State of Israel," Netanyahu said Sunday. "The new government was established according to the will of most citizens and will serve all citizens."
"We have chosen, with great responsibility, to establish an emergency government of national unity," he said.
"If we had gone into a fourth election - the additional cost would have amounted to NIS 2 billion. The additional cost of a unity government [was roughly] NIS 85 million a year, infinitely lower than the cost of additional elections," he said.
"That would have been a real waste. It would have forced us to defer the fallout of the coronavirus to an undetermined date."
Netanyahu's speech was interrupted several times by Knesset members from the Joint List and Meretz, who shouted: "Bribery, fraud and breach of trust," referring to the indictments against the prime minister, and "You are a criminal defendant."
Netanyahu responded: "I can give you advice from my years of experience - it doesn’t work. You get respect if you show respect."
Turning to the coronavirus outbreak, Netanyahu hailed the national response to the crisis that led to a relatively low death toll as compared to other Western countries.
"The situation in Israel is different because of the steps taken in time, closing the skies, self-isolation and, of course, the citizens who adhered to the Health Ministry guidelines and the wonderful medical staff," he said.
"But the battle is not yet over," he said. "The danger will be removed only when a vaccine has been found and in the meantime the virus is still here. There is a possibility that a second wave of the virus will hit the world and Israel, as happened with the Spanish flu epidemic 100 years ago."
Netanyahu said that the new government would continue to thwart and remove security threats to Israel, and also address the issue of sovereignty over the West Bank settlements and Jordan Valley.
"We will fight the International Criminal Court's attempt at accusing IDF soldiers of war crimes and the State of Israel for the horrendous crime of kindergarten construction. What hypocrisy, what twisting of the truth. These areas of the country are birthplaces of the Jewish nation. It's time to apply Israeli law over them.
"This step will not distance peace but bring it closer. The truth, and everyone knows it, is that hundreds of thousands of settlers in Judea and Samaria would always stay where they are under any agreement. The issue of sovereignty is on the agenda solely because I personally acted to advance it openly and honestly for the past three years."
Speaking after Netanyahu, Gantz also had to stop his speech several times due to heckling from his erstwhile colleagues in Blue & White, now functioning as the Yesh Atid party.
"We have been through three election campaigns in the past year and a half," he said.
"The people have spoken and left we the leaders from both sides of the house to opt for unity or some form of civil war. The people told us 'Stop fighting among yourselves and start working for us.' I, Prime Minister Netanyahu and 71 other public servants decided to assume national responsibility," he said.
"This is an equal government, a government of balance and brakes. I and my colleagues chose unity in order to protect the citizens of Israel not only from the challenges facing outside our borders but also from the hatred that erodes within and harms the internal resilience that is vital to our security.
"We chose unity in a period when public officials are being threatened and lines are being crossed against public figures on the left and right."
Once Gantz had finished, the podium was given over to Opposition Leader-designate MK Yair Lapid, the head of Yesh Atid and former ally of the Blue & White leader.
Lapid lost no time in attacking the new coalition and its bloated size.
"This building has finally lost the confidence of the citizens of Israel," he said.
"Politics takes citizens' money and gives us nothing in return. There is connection between politics and people's real lives.
In real life, if your expenses outstrip your income, you get a call from the bank. This is what is happening to dozens of small businesses and laid off workers who are eating through their savings.
“In this building, in politics, the coronavirus is an excuse to hold a corrupt party at the expense of the taxpayers.
You are today establishing the biggest government in history, are you are calling it an emergency government? At present, there are less than 50 people on ventilators because of the coronavirus.
There are more ministers than intubated coronavirus patients. It's not just the profligacy, it's also the utter disregard for the distress of Israelis. Setting up unnecessary ministries at their expense, a celebration costing hundreds of millions.
"Of course nobody thinks of selling the unnecessary [prime minister's] plane for NIS 780 million. In people's real life, someone with three indictments cannot be the deputy principal of a school, cannot be a minister's driver," he said. "No one would put a unit of soldiers in the hands of a person facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust."
The controversial power-sharing deal calls for Netanyahu to serve as prime minister for the government's first 18 months before being replaced by Gantz for the next 18 months. Their blocs will also have a similar number of ministers and virtual veto power over the other's major decisions.
Critics have already accused the government of being out of touch by creating so many cabinet posts at a time when unemployment has soared to more than 25% as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
But because Netanyahu's bloc includes several smaller parties, he still only has a limited number of cabinet ministries to hand out to the Likud rank and file, and he faced a mini-insurgency from angry senior members ahead of the planned swearing-in ceremony on Thursday. Unable to meet a deadline, Netanyahu asked for a delay to solve his internal party crisis.
Among the political casualties was Likud MK and former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, who was not appointed as minister despite his popularity among the party's voters.
"Barkat deserves a senior role in both the Likud and the government," Netanyahu said Sunday. "Unfortunately it did not work out before the government was sworn in."
The prime minister said he would endeavour to find a senior role for the former mayor in the future.
The deal has already led to the dissolution of Gantz's Blue & White alliance after - to the fury of many his party's voters - he reneged on his central campaign promise not to serve under Netanyahu, who has been indicted on corruption charges goes on trial later this month. Their much-scrutinized coalition deal could only come about after the High Court ruled it had no legal grounds to block it.
Despite the criticism, Gantz argued that teaming with Netanyahu offered the country its only way out of the prolonged stalemate and prevented Israel from being dragged once again to another costly election that would have been its fourth in just over a year.
Gantz will start out as defense minister, with party colleague and fellow retired military chief Gabi Ashkenazi serving as foreign minister. Netanyahu's top deputy in Likud, outgoing Foreign Minister Israel Katz, will become finance minister.
Yariv Levin, perhaps Netanyahu's closest ally, will become the new Knesset speaker, a position vacated by Gantz as he becomes defense minister. The coalition will also include ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas and some other individual defectors to add up to 73 out of the 120 members.
The main point of contention for critics has been the newly created position of "alternate prime minister," a post that could allow Netanyahu to remain in office even after the swap and throughout his corruption trial and a potential appeals process. There are also deep suspicions about whether Netanyahu will keep his part of the bargain and ultimately cede the premiership to Gantz.
Still, the new position is supposed to enjoy all the trappings of the prime minister, including an official residence and, key for Netanyahu, an exemption from a law that requires public officials who are not prime minister to resign if charged with a crime.
Netanyahu has been indicted on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving allegedly trading favors with wealthy media moguls. He denies any wrongdoing and blames the charges on a media-orchestrated plot to oust him.
Since his indictment last fall, he has repeatedly lashed out at the country's legal system as well, with his political allies taking special aim at the high court and accusing it of overreach and political interference.
His legal woes and fitness to serve were central issues in the recent election campaigns, in particular for Gantz's Blue & White party.
First published: 11:46, 05.17.20