JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival-turned-partner, Benny Gantz, on Thursday postponed the swearing-in of their controversial new government as the Israeli leader rushed to quell infighting within his Likud party.
In a joint announcement, the two men said they would hold a swearing-in ceremony on Sunday to give Netanyahu more time to hand out coveted Cabinet appointments to members of his party.
Netanyahu and Gantz, a former military chief, announced last month they would put their differences aside and join forces to steer the country through the coronavirus crisis and its severe economic fallout.
It came at the price of the dissolution of Gantz's Blue and White party and his reneging on a key campaign promise not to serve under Netanyahu, who is scheduled to go on trial this month for corruption charges. Their much-scrutinized coalition deal, resulting in the most bloated government in Israeli history and new legislation to help Netanyahu cling to power, could only come about after the country's Supreme Court ruled it had no legal grounds to block it.
Just as the government was set to be sworn in late Thursday under strict social distancing guidelines, the two men announced the delay in a joint statement, saying Gantz had agreed to a request by Netanyahu to wait until Sunday.
The coalition 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 have a similar number of ministers and virtual veto power over the other’s major decisions. Because Netanyahu's bloc includes several smaller parties, he only has a limited number of Cabinet ministries to hand out to the Likud rank and file.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute, said the incoming government's main achievement would be ending the longest political deadlock in Israeli history. But he said the deep distrust between the opposing camps left doubts on how they could govern together.
“The jury is still out if indeed the political deadlock is over and if we have a broad government that will exercise its authority,” he said.
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 parliament speaker. The coalition will also include a pair of ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties and some other individual defectors to add up to 73 out of parliament's 120 members.
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 25% as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Critics also object to the newly created position of “alternate prime minister.” The post that could allow Netanyahu to remain in office even after the swap and throughout his corruption trial and a potential appeals process.
The new position includes 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 with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving 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. His legal woes and fitness to serve were central issues in the recent election campaigns.
Another hot topic will be Netanyahu's intention to introduce Israeli plans to annex parts of the West Bank as early as this summer. The coalition agreement allows him to present an annexation proposal as soon as July 1.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a one-day visit on Wednesday for talks that included discussions on President Donald Trump's Mideast plan, which envisions handing 30% of the West Bank to permanent Israeli control.
In an interview published Thursday with the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom, Pompeo said the talks looked at “all the ways to move forward.”
The Palestinians claim the entire West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as the heartland of an independent state. Annexing chunks of this territory would likely put an end to the Palestinians’ already diminishing hopes of a two-state solution and would anger the international community, which overwhelmingly supports Palestinian statehood.
Gantz says he will only support such a move with international backing.
Netanyahu's nationalist base is eager to push for annexation before the U.S. elections in November — after which Trump could be replaced by Joe Biden, who has said he opposes unilateral annexation.
The Arab League’s secretary-general, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, on Thursday urged the international community to “send a clear message” to the new Israeli government about the “dangerous consequences” of West Bank annexation, which he said “sows the seeds of turmoil in the entire region.”
Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre contributed to this report.
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