Israel set to swear in Netanyahu-Gantz unity government

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Israel was poised to swear in a unity government Sunday after three elections, more than 500 days of limbo and a delay on the home stretch, as the country hopes to end the longest political crisis in its history.

The coalition government was agreed last month between veteran right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his centrist rival-turned-ally Benny Gantz, a former army chief.

Plans had been set for an inauguration last Thursday. But after 17 months without a stable government and three inconclusive elections in less than a year, Netanyahu asked for three more days to decide on cabinet assignments among his Likud party loyalists.

With the outstanding disputes among Netanyahu's bloc apparently resolved, Israel's parliament, the Knesset, was scheduled to meet at 1pm (1000 GMT) to begin the session culminating with the swearing-in.

Under the three-year coalition deal, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for the coming 18 months -- a victory for a leader due to stand trial in a week on corruption charges, which he denies.

Gantz will be alternate prime minister -- a new position in Israeli governance -- for the first half of the deal, before he and Netanyahu swap roles.

The new government's policy guidelines state as top priorities combatting the coronavirus and healing an economy battered by the pandemic.

- West Bank annexations? -

The new government may be confronted with yet another international crisis in matter of weeks, centred on the occupied West Bank.

The Netanyahu-Gantz deal says the government can from July 1 initiate moves to implement US President Donald Trump's controversial peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The plan, rejected by the Palestinians, gives the green light from Washington for Israel to annex Jewish settlements and other territory in the West Bank.

Such a move by Israel would be sure to cause international uproar and inflame tensions in the restive West Bank, home to nearly three million Palestinians and some 400,000 Israelis living in settlements considered illegal under international law.

Some experts have warned that Jordan may back away from its historic 1994 peace deal with Israel if the Jewish state tries to annex the strategically crucial Jordan Valley border region.

Speaking to German magazine Der Spiegel days ago, Jordan's King Abdullah II said: "If Israel really annexes the West Bank in July, it would lead to a massive conflict with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan."

The European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Friday that the bloc would use "all our diplomatic capacities" to try to dissuade Israel's incoming government from going ahead with annexations.

And German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said it was clear "that annexations are not compatible with international law".

The new Israeli government is likely to be less hardline on pursuing annexation than Netanyahu's last coalition, with Gantz and incoming Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi both known to have reservations about an international backlash.

- 'Bloated and wasteful' -

The 35th government since Israel's creation in 1948 includes representatives from across the political spectrum, with a record 34 to 36 cabinet seats.

Cabinet posts have been assigned to the left-wing Labour party, Blue and White, Likud and leaders from conservative ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.

The large cabinet and additional funds for the new position of alternate prime minister have prompted criticism as Israel seeks to address the economic fallout from COVID-19, which has infected more than 16,500 Israelis and caused more than 260 deaths.

Israel's Yediot Aharonot newspaper described the incoming government as "the most bloated and wasteful" in the nation's history, adding that it comes as "the Israeli economy is in an unprecedented state of emergency to boot."