Israel’s unity deal hands Netanyahu boost ahead of corruption trial

Under the agreement, the incumbent will stay on as prime minister, with his main rival taking over in October next year

(FILES) In this file photo taken on February 17, 2020 (FILES) A file photo taken on February 17, 2020 shows an election banner for the Israeli Blue and White political alliance (Kahol Lavan) with the face of (L to R) its leader retired army general Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, hanging in Ramat Gan. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his former rival, parliament speaker Benny Gantz, agreed to form an emergency unity government on April 20, 2020, ending the worst political crisis in the country's history. / AFP / JACK GUEZ
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clinched a deal with his rival Benny Gantz to form a coalition government, ending more than a year of political turmoil and handing the longtime premier a boost for his pending corruption trial.

Under the agreement signed late on Monday, Mr Netanyahu, 70, will stay on as prime minister before handing over to the 60-year-old former Israeli military chief in October next year.

It follows seven tumultuous weeks of talks since the election, during which Mr Gantz’s Blue and White alliance collapsed as he began dealmaking with the leader he had promised to push out.

“We prevented a fourth election,” the former army chief wrote on Twitter. “We’ll fight coronavirus and we will take care of Israeli citizens.”

Israeli leaders agree to power-sharing deal

Israeli leaders agree to power-sharing deal

Mr Gantz’s side will hold the defence, justice and foreign affairs portfolios, among others, while health, interior and finance will go to Mr Netanyahu’s camp.

The new government “will act to save the lives and livelihoods of Israeli citizens”, the prime minister said.

It will also pave the way for annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, a proposal widely criticised by the international community and which is slated to be on the Cabinet’s agenda in July.

The move was outlined in the US administration’s Middle East peace plan, unveiled in January with the full backing of Mr Netanyahu. Mr Gantz had pledged to seek international backing before forging ahead with annexation.

The controversial plans were described as “dangerous and objectionable” by top Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi.

“The Palestinian people will confront this lawless and dangerous agenda resolutely and with unwavering determination,” she said, and called for international support.

The new Cabinet has also been slammed by the leader of the Joint List, Israel’s third-largest party, which represents Israeli-Arabs who make up about 20 per cent of the population.

“The capitulation government of Gantz and Netanyahu is a slap in the face to most of the citizens who voted again and again to oust Netanyahu,” said Ayman Odeh, who heads the Joint List.

After picking up an impressive 15 seats in Israel’s 120-member Knesset, the Joint List backed Mr Gantz, who was tasked by the president with forming a government. But internal divisions within the opposition camp meant he failed to get the necessary majority.

“Gantz wasn’t courageous enough to win, and chose to approve annexation, racism and corruption,” Mr Odeh said.

Pressure has mounted on politicians to form a government after three inconclusive elections, both to avoid a costly fourth round and to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 180 people in Israel.

While the outbreak had already reached the country by the March 2 elections, with special polling stations set up for those in quarantine, the subsequent weeks saw daily life come to a standstill.

Despite tabling annexation within a matter of weeks, the coalition deal says tackling coronavirus and its financial fallout will be the government’s top priority over the next six months.

While Israel has eased some restrictions, allowing a wide range of stores to open under strict conditions, the vast majority of citizens are under stay-home measures. Few flights operate and land borders remain closed.

Under coronavirus measures, lawmakers were sworn in last month only three at a time, while most court hearings have been postponed. Mr Netanyahu’s delayed trial is now due to start on May 24, when he will become the first sitting prime minister to face a criminal trial.

The premier’s legal woes were reportedly a sticking point of the government negotiations, with Mr Netanyahu securing veto powers over the appointments of the attorney general and other judicial officials.

“He achieved what he set out to do, to still be PM in court,” said Anshel Pfeffer, who wrote a biography of the premier.

“It won’t change the eventual judgment, but it will change the public’s perception of the process and help him to rally his base against the verdict if it goes against him,” he wrote on Twitter.

If convicted, Mr Netanyahu is not required to step down until all avenues of appeal have been exhausted.

While the deal anticipates Israel’s longest-serving leader departing in 18 months, doubts remain about whether the coalition will endure or be able to successfully legislate.

“This agreement does not initiate any policies, introduce proposals for reform, or present new plans for extracting Israel from the current crisis,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.

“Instead, it paves the path towards a government without a grand vision or clear goals that will be burdened with numerous wasteful ministries and cumbersome political agreements,” he added.