Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz presented Israel’s 35th government at the Knesset on Sunday ahead of the swearing-in ceremony, defending its bloat and patchwork makeup of values against numerous heckles by livid opposition lawmakers.
Setting aside three rancorous elections, Netanyahu said at the Knesset plenum that he was sure he and Gantz would work successfully together in government the same way they did during the 2014 Protective Edge military operation in Gaza, when Gantz was IDF chief of staff.
“This is an important day for the State of Israel,” he declared.
The date for Gantz assuming the premiership according to the terms of their power-sharing deal has been set for November 17, 2021, Netanyahu said.
Offering a response to widespread accusations that the government was overlarge and costly at a time when the economy is being ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, Netanyahu said: “We went through three elections that deepened rifts and took a heavy financial toll. Another election would have cost NIS 2 billion more.” By contrast, he claimed, the cost of the new government was NIS 85 million per year, far less than new elections, which would also have weakened the country as it fought the coronavirus.
Netanyahu hailed Israel’s response to the pandemic and noted that the government would form a special coronavirus cabinet in anticipation of a potential second wave of infections. He said the government would pass a budget of “hope” that would help workplaces recover from the financial toll.
Opposition lawmakers made several interruptions during the premier’s speech, leading some MKs to receive multiple warnings and two to be sent away by Deputy Knesset Speaker Eitan Ginzburg of Blue and White.
“There is an illusion by new Knesset members that clashing with me will help them over time. From my experience I can say that doesn’t work,” Netanyahu retorted.
Netanyahu said the government would fight the International Criminal Court’s attempts to prosecute Israel for “building a kindergarten in [the Jerusalem neighborhood of] Gilo and homes in [the settlement of] Shilo.”
“Such hypocrisy,” he said.
And on his promise to annex settlements and the Jordan Valley with US approval, he said Israel’s law should be extended over West Bank land: “These regions are the cradle of the Jewish people. It is time to extend Israel’s law over them. This step won’t bring us further away from peace, it will get us closer. The truth is, and everyone knows it, that the hundreds of thousands of settlers in Judea and Samaria will always stay put in any future deal.”
“There will be no peace with occupation and apartheid,” repeatedly interjected Joint List MK Yousef Jabareen, who was sent out of the plenum along with his party member Ofer Cassif.
Netanyahu praised the United States’ support for the move, but added that Israel should rely only on itself to defend itself.
Alluding to the Yamina right-wing party, which is currently heading to the opposition while accusing the premier of abandoning it, Netanyahu said he hoped yet “another party” would join the coalition later on.
In a surprise move, Netanyahu announced that the cabinet would include 35 members instead of 34 — with one more minister for the right-wing bloc (19 to the Blue and White bloc’s 16).
Blue and White officials told the Times of Israel that the party had authorized the move, and that the sides had agreed that only the votes of 16 ministers from each bloc will count in the cabinet, maintaining the equal power-sharing principle of the new coalition.
Gantz’s approval allowed Netanyahu ally Tzachi Hanegbi to be a minister without a portfolio. Hanegbi will replace new Settlement Affairs Minister Tzipi Hotovely when she leaves for an unspecified “diplomatic mission” in several months’ time.
Gantz spoke after Netanyahu, saying Israel was ending the “worst political crisis in its history” and calling for an end to “the era of incitement” and the start of an “era of reconciliation.”
Repeatedly heckled by his former allies, now in the opposition, Gantz said the alternative to the government was “a kind of civil war.”
Gantz said the unity government would end the period of Israel being ruled by a “government of half the people.”
He said he would do everything so that all Israeli citizens — Jewish or Arab, heterosexual or LGBT — will “feel at home.”
He also said he would “back the rule of law in Israel,” an apparent pointed reference to attacks on the justice system by Netanyahu and his loyalists as well as efforts to enact sweeping reforms in it.
“The government is egalitarian, with checks and balances,” Gantz said. “I and our friends chose unity at a time when public officials are threatened and lines are crossed… from the left and the right.”
The latter comment appeared to be an allusion, in part, to recent threats against Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who indicted Netanyahu in three corruption cases. The prime minister’s trial is scheduled to begin next week.
Gantz said Netanyahu had made the right and “courageous” move by cooperating with him and setting a date for their rotation in the leadership.
Addressing his former Blue and White allies Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, who refused to join the government with him, he said: “You know I wanted you to be with me.
“I hear your attacks, but I still respect you. I’m saddened that at the moment of truth, the partnership couldn’t be maintained,” he said. He was repeatedly interrupted by shouting from Yesh Atid MK Mickey Levy, who was eventually sent out of the plenum.
Gantz said he would be open to dialogue with those in the opposition.
Speaking after Gantz, new opposition leader Lapid said “Israelis deserve better” than “the largest and most wasteful [government] in the history of the country.”
With 36 ministers and 16 deputy ministers and “fewer than 50 coronavirus patients on ventilators in Israel… we have more ministers and deputy ministers than patients on life support.”
He promised that the opposition will remind the people that “there is an alternative” to leadership “that cares only about its own jobs and seats.
“A leadership committed to values, to the change we want to lead. To love Judaism but to fight religious coercion. To stand against racism. To fight corruption. To protect our democracy from those who seek to destroy it.”
Under the coalition deal signed last month between Likud and Blue and White, the new government will initially have 35 ministers and 16 deputy ministers — the largest government in Israel’s history — before growing to 36 in six months.
A new government had to be sworn in by midnight on Wednesday, when new elections would otherwise be automatically triggered.