Immediately after his fifth government was sworn in by the Knesset on Sunday afternoon, approved by an overwhelming 73-46 votes, an ebullient Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found a few minutes for an interview with Army Radio.
He acknowledged that his 35-minister government is larger than he would have liked, promised that it would prioritize “creating jobs” and reviving the economy from the battering by COVID-19, and vowed that Iran would never obtain nuclear weapons so long as he is Israel’s prime minister.
And then he was asked whether, as the head of the 35th government in modern Israeli history, he intends to lead Israel’s 36th as well. Laughing, Netanyahu answered: “No more than the 37th.”
Not quite sure what to make of this reply, his interviewer persisted: Would the premier confirm that, in 18 months’ time, when he is supposed to hand over power to his coalition partner, Benny Gantz, we will be marking the end of the Netanyahu era? The prime minister, 70, chuckled again, and noted: “If I had to count all those who eulogized that the Netanyahu era is over… well, some of them are still alive.”
Back from the brink despite Gantz’s concerted efforts to oust him over three bruising election campaigns, and despite the shadow of his corruption trial opening next week, Netanyahu on Sunday was plainly delighting in the prospect of a minimum of 18 more months in charge, relishing his renewed endorsement at center stage.
Having secured an agreement under which he takes the first prime ministerial shift in their rotation government, while Gantz is “alternate” PM and defense minister, it was Netanyahu who presented this emergency unity coalition to the Knesset — a surreal Knesset, filled with lawmakers in masks dispersed to the farthest corners of the hall for maximal social distancing. Gantz played a clear second fiddle, rather plaintively taking the oath of office as the self-declared “alternate prime minister and future prime minister.”
And it was Netanyahu, in another surreal, virus-prompted scene, who soon afterwards presided over the first meeting of this record-sized ministerial team, holding court between Gantz and the cabinet secretary, Tzahi Braverman, in the Knesset’s Chagall Hall, with the new ministers sitting spaced in rows of seats facing them.
Netanyahu set out the five priorities for this government: fighting the pandemic, however that threat henceforth manifests itself; getting Israel’s “economic wheels turning again”; facing down Iran, including its nuclear threat and its efforts to establish its military presence in Syria; countering the “strategic threat” posed by the International Criminal Court’s moves toward prosecuting Israel for alleged war crimes; and “swiftly” advancing his declared intention to expand Israeli sovereignty into parts of the West Bank.
“We’ll achieve all that we planned to do, together,” he promised. “We’ll do great things for Israel.”
When it was finally Gantz’s turn to speak, Netanyahu interrupted his “alternate prime minister” almost as soon as he had begun, breaking in to thank Gantz’s No. 2, the incoming foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi, for his contribution to the establishment of the coalition.
After Gantz made a brief address, also acknowledging that the cabinet is overlarge, and highlighting his watchwords of “responsibility and unity,” Netanyahu again resumed control, endorsing and amending Gantz’s watchwords to “reconciliation and unity.” After hailing the appointment of Pnina Tamano-Shata as the first Ethiopian-born MK to hold cabinet office, Netanyahu then raised a bottle of hand sanitizer and ended the session with the call, “To work!”
For all those political eulogies, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister had never gone away. But as of Sunday afternoon, he was back.