Completing a remarkable turnaround that will see him retain the premiership for at least the next 18 months, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was endorsed Thursday as prime minister by 72 Knesset members, paving the way for him to finalize a coalition agreement with Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz and swear-in his new government next week.
The signatures were delivered to President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday afternoon, hours after constitutional changes underpinning the Likud-Blue and White power-sharing deal were approved by the Knesset and less than a day after the country’s top court rejected eight petitions against the deal and Netanyahu’s right to set up a new government when under indictment.
Rivlin was expected to task Netanyahu with forming a government in the coming hours, bringing the country one step closer to ending 16 months of political turmoil wrought by three inconclusive elections.
Netanyahu has continued to helm the transitional government during what is widely seen as the worst political crisis in Israel’s history, despite being under criminal indictment and incessant predictions of his political downfall.
Faction representatives presented Rivlin with the signatures recommending Netanyahu as the next prime minister, the Likud and Blue and White parties said in a statement.
Netanyahu told Rivlin in a letter that he agreed to be tasked with forming the “emergency national unity government.”
The President’s Residence confirmed receiving the signatures, saying in a statement that unless doubts rise regarding the authenticity of some of the signatures, Rivlin would task Netanyahu later in the day with forming a government.
The six lawmakers from the national-religious Yamina party and Labor MK Merav Michaeli were not among the signatories. Michaeli is the lone Labor member to refuse to join a government under Netanyahu, and Yamina has been pressuring Netanyahu for increased influence in the new government. It has indicated it might opt for the opposition.
Had nobody gotten at least 61 recommendations by midnight, the country would have been forced to go to a new election, the fourth in less than 18 months.
The government to be formed by Netanyahu could offer Israel a rare period of political stability as it seeks to repair the economic damage wrought by the novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 16,000 people in the country and caused some 240 deaths.
Gantz had run in all three elections as the alternative to Netanyahu, who has been in power for over a decade, but agreed last month to negotiate a coalition deal, angering his allies. He cited the virus emergency as a reason for compromising and reneging on his vow not to serve in a government under Netanyahu as long as he remained under indictment. On Thursday, he added his signature to those endorsing Netanyahu as prime minister, hoping to succeed the incumbent in 18 months under their rotation deal.
The sides have said the new government will be sworn in Wednesday, May 13, once final decisions are made regarding ministerial appointments.
The coalition deal between Netanyahu and Gantz will see the two share the premiership over the emerging government’s term. Under the deal, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for the first 18 months, followed by Gantz. A late-night amendment to legislation included a clause allowing Netanyahu and Gantz to extend the government’s three-year term by another year if they so choose.
Cabinet positions will be split between separate camps led by the right-wing Likud party and more centrist Blue and White, in what has been described as a two-headed government.
The deal, widely regarded as byzantine, required the sides to amend a number of laws, creating a new role of “alternate prime minister,” freezing much Knesset legislation not related to the coronavirus pandemic, clamping senior appointments and other controversial measures.
In a ruling on petitions seeking to torpedo the pact and have Netanyahu disqualified from being prime minister, the High Court on Wednesday said while there were “significant difficulties,” there was no legal basis to intervene yet.
The most important part of the legislative package passed Thursday, the premiership rotation bill which amends a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, was approved in its second and third readings by a margin of 72 to 36, with members of Yamina not showing up for the vote.
Also absent were Michaeli and some members of the right-wing opposition Yisrael Beytenu party including party leader Avigdor Liberman, a bitter rival of Netanyahu.
Prospective opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid-Telem, once Gantz’s close ally, lambasted the new government, and Blue and White in particular. “Never have so few swindled so many voters,” he tweeted, in reference to the famous World War II quote by by British prime minister Winston Churchill.
In a statement later Thursday, Lapid added: “This morning in the Knesset, Benny Gantz and [Blue and White No.2] Gabi Ashkenzi gathered signatures to recommend that the president task Netanyahu with forming the next government. They want to form a government within a week because in two weeks, Netanyahu’s trial starts. Within a week they will swear allegiance to him; in two weeks he will be on trial for breach of trust. They call it an emergency government when the emergency is over. They talk about unity, but don’t trust one another.”
In a decision handed down after 11 p.m. on Wednesday, the expanded panel of 11 judges ruled that there was no legal impediment to Netanyahu being tasked to form a government and retaining the premiership even with the indictments. His trial is set to start on May 24.
As regards the coalition deal, Chief Justice Esther Hayut called it “highly unusual” and said some of its elements “raise serious difficulties.” Among these, she cited clauses providing for a modified “Norwegian Law,” under which some ministers could give up their Knesset seats, and others on their parties’ lists would take their places in parliament — but not necessarily according to the order in which they ran in the election.
Nonetheless, the court ruled that there was no reason to intervene “at this time,” a phrase that was seen as leaving the door open to future challenges to the legislation underpinning the agreement.
Hayut also noted that the court was not intervening in part because of responses received on Tuesday from Likud and Blue and White, which agreed to amend elements of the agreement that the court had criticized.
Under the coalition deal, the government was to be defined as an “emergency” body for its first six months, tasked exclusively with combating the coronavirus. Following questions about that clause’s legality, the parties said they would amend the deal to say coronavirus will be the priority through the first six months, but other issues can be also handled. They also said they would pause certain public appointments for only 100 days, instead of the originally planned six months.
The deal specifies that Netanyahu may press ahead from July 1 with plans to annex parts of the West Bank, including all of Israel’s settlements, even without Gantz’s support.