Israel set to swear in biggest government, after longest political deadlock

Knesset ceremony Thursday evening will install first fully functioning government since December 2018; will have the largest cabinet in history with 36 ministers

President Reuven Rivlin, center, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz shake hands at the memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin, center, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz shake hands at the memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s new government is set to be sworn in on Thursday evening, bringing nearly 18 months of political gridlock to an end.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formally announced on Wednesday that he had succeeded in forming a government in letters to Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz in his capacity as the temporary Knesset speaker and to President Reuven Rivlin.

The new government, which, according to the coalition agreement, will see Gantz replace Netanyahu as prime minister after 18 months, is scheduled to be sworn in Thursday evening after lawmakers vote to approve it during a Knesset plenum session that will begin at 6 p.m.

The swearing-in of the new Knesset, Israel’s first fully functioning government in over 500 days since the end of December 2018, will conclude the longest political logjam in Israel’s history, in which Netanyahu’s Likud party and Blue and White went head-to-head in an unprecedented three consecutive elections.

At the Knesset’s presentation of the 35th Government of Israel on Thursday evening, Netanyahu will detail the makeup of the government, its ministers, basic principles and guidelines.

Assuming the newly created post of alternate prime minister, Blue and White party chief Gantz will also speak.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid will be given a chance to speak as well.

Yesh Atid-Telem leader Yair Lapid gives a statement to the press on April 21, 2020. (Elad Guttman/Yesh Atid-Telem)

Afterwards every faction in the Knesset will be given nine minutes to speak at the podium. The government is expected to be sworn in at around 10 p.m.

Under the coalition deal signed last month between Likud and Blue and White, the new government were to initially have 32 ministers — divided equally between the Netanyahu- and Gantz-led blocs — before swelling to a record 36 in six months. Under the cabinet taking shape late Wednesday, however, it appeared the initial government would number 34 ministers.

Gantz will serve as defense minister until he is scheduled to take over as premier on November 14, 2021.

Netanyahu and Gantz will carry the title “alternate prime minister” when not serving as premier.

Among the prominent ministerial appointments in the new government are Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi as foreign minister, Likud MK Israel Katz as finance minister, Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn as justice minister and Likud MK Yuli Edelstein as health minister.

The Knesset will also vote on a new speaker, slated to be Likud MK Yariv Levin.

Labor MKs Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli are expected to become economy minister and welfare minister, respectively.

Derech Eretz MK Yoaz Hendel will be appointed communications minister.

Blue and White’s Pnina Tamano-Shata will head the Absorption Ministry, its Chili Tropper is expected to receive the Culture and Sports Ministry, Michael Biton the Ministry of Minority Affairs, Alon Schuster the Agriculture Ministry and Omer Yankelevich the Diaspora Affairs Ministry.

Chairman of the Labor party Amir Peretz is seen during a press conference in Tel Aviv, March 12, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Blue and White is also set to receive the tourism, science and space, strategic affairs and social affairs portfolios.

The incumbent health minister, Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism, is set to receive the housing portfolio. Shas’s Aryeh Deri will retain the Interior Ministry and the Development of the Periphery, Negev and Galilee Ministry.

Likud’s Miri Regev is expected to be appointed transportation minister. Netanyahu reportedly offered Regev the foreign ministry in 18 months when Gantz takes over as premier.

Likud’s Yoav Gallant will likely receive the Intelligence Ministry, Ofir Akunis the Regional Cooperation Ministry, and Ze’ev Elkin the Environmental Protection Ministry, according to Channel 12.

Likud will also receive the religious affairs, energy, Jerusalem and education portfolios.

Netanyahu confidant Amir Ohana, currently serving as interim justice minister, is expected to receive the public security portfolio, which oversees law enforcement.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana speaks at a ceremony at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, February 3, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

During his tenure as justice minister, Ohana repeatedly attacked the justice system and those leading it as they pushed forward with criminal investigations, and eventually an indictment, of the premier.

His possible appointment as public security minister sparked fears among top police officials, who fear Ohana will seek an outside candidate to lead the force, curtail its Lahav 433 investigation unit and oppose possible new probes into Netanyahu.

Labour-Gesher party co-chairwoman Orly Levy-Abekasis at a faction meeting at the Knesset on November 11, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90 )

Gesher party chief Orly Levy-Abekasis, who in March broke with her left-wing partners in the now defunct Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance and joined Netanyahu in April, will receive a newly created portfolio dubbed the Office for Community Strengthening and Promotion. The new post will take over some responsibilities currently handled by the Public Security Ministry, including projects combating drug- and alcohol-related violence, domestic violence and online child abuse. It will also promote youth services and projects in the Arab community.

A Channel 13 report said Netanyahu met Wednesday evening with Yamina’s Rafi Peretz, the outgoing education minister, in a last-ditch attempt to convince him to enter the new government, even without the rest of the party. Netanyahu reportedly offered Peretz the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs as well as authority in settlement issues.

A deal between Likud and Yamina, the national-religious party that stuck by Netanyahu after the past two elections, remained elusive, with the two sides at odds over the party’s role in the next government, likely relegating Yamina to the opposition, along with Yisrael Beytenu, Yesh Atid-Telem, the Joint List, Meretz and Labor’s Meirav Michaeli.

Gantz campaigned on replacing Netanyahu due to the premier’s indictment on graft charges but dropped his opposition to sitting in a government with him after the latest elections again ended with no clear winner, citing the coronavirus pandemic and a desire to avoid a fourth round of voting.

The move led to the breakup of the Blue and White alliance, with Gantz being elected as Knesset speaker with the backing of Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc as they negotiated the terms of the new government.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on May 2, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Ahead of the swearing-in ceremony, Likud and Blue and White on Wednesday evening released the policy principles of the new government, as instructed by the High Court of Justice.

The document said the government will initially form an emergency cabinet to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and formulate a plan to extract Israel from the accompanying economic crisis, while rolling out a “socioeconomic safety net” and special programs for citizens who are struggling financially.

“Additionally, out of the belief that the Jewish people has the inviolable right to a sovereign state in the Land of Israel, the national and historic homeland of the Jewish people, the government will also address all issues relating to the peace, security and prosperity of Israel,” the statement said.

To do this, the government will push to “strengthen national security” and “strive for peace,” ensure equal opportunity for all Israelis, boost the economy, work “to bridge between all parts of the nation,” preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, and encourage immigration of Jews to the country, among other policy stances.

Furthermore, the government will promote “conduct, dialogue and action in a statesmanlike, law-abiding, respectful and unifying manner” among all Israelis, the document said.

The principles did not specifically mention the annexation of parts of the West Bank, a step that under the coalition deal between Likud and Blue and White can be set in motion as early as July.

The release of the new government’s policy platform came as Likud and Blue and White inked agreements with their respective allies to bring them into the coalition.

For Likud, this included Shas and United Torah Judaism, a pair of ultra-Orthodox parties, while Blue and White reached terms with the small right-wing faction Derech Eretz.

Blue and White was also set to sign an agreement with Labor MKs Peretz and Shmuli.

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