Israel government sworn in, PM vows push for annexation

Transition ends Israel’s political impasse but could usher in regional and international crisis.
Sunday 17/05/2020
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking during a swearing-in ceremony of the new government in Jerusalem. (AFP)
Tensions rising. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking during a swearing-in ceremony of the new government in Jerusalem. (AFP)

JERUSALEM/ LONDON--Israel’s parliament swore in a new unity government Sunday led by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his former rival Benny Gantz, ending the longest political crisis in the nation’s history but potentially starting a stormy chapter of annexation policies.

Lawmakers in the 120-person parliament, the Knesset, formally approved the three-year coalition government with 73 voting for and 49 against.

Addressing the Knesset before the vote, Netanyahu vowed to push on with controversial plans to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank, practically killing any hopes for the Palestinians to have their own state.

“These regions are where the Jewish nation was born and rose. It is time to apply Israeli law on them and write another great chapter in the annals of Zionism,” he said.

Palestinians have vehemently opposed such a move, urging international sanctions against Israel in response.

“These colonial and expansionist positions confirm once again his (Netanyahu’s) ideological enmity towards peace,” the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Such a move is seen likely to inflame tensions in the West Bank, home to nearly three million Palestinians and some 400,000 Israelis living in settlements considered illegal under international law.

Netanyahu said annexation “won’t distance us from peace, it will bring us closer”.

The new government may now be confronted with a wide international crisis in a matter of weeks, centered on the West Bank and the Palestinian issue.

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.

Trump’s plan, rejected by the Palestinians, gives the green light from Washington for Israel to annex Jewish settlements and other territory making up nearly 30% of the West Bank. The plan also gives Israel full control of Jerusalem.

Israel’s implementation of its annexation plans is likely to trigger a regional an international outcry.

Experts say Jordan could suspend its 1994 peace deal with Israel if the Jewish state proceeds with annexing the strategically crucial Jordan Valley border region.

Speaking to German magazine Der Spiegel last Friday, 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.” He said a two-state-solution is the only option.

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.

Gantz and incoming Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi are both known to have some reservations about annexation and the international backlash but not enough to oppose the move.

Gantz did not mention the issue in his Knesset speech on Sunday.

He addressed criticism of his move to join forces with Netanyahu, which split his Blue and White coalition, arguing that Israel needed unity after a year of bitter division.

“My friends and I chose unity to defend Israeli citizens, not just from the challenges from outside our borders but also from the hatred eating away at us from within and harming our resilience,” he said.

The coalition government was agreed last month between veteran right-wing leader Netanyahu and the centrist Gantz, a former army chief. It  starts work after a political crisis that saw three inconclusive elections and left the country in political limbo for more than 500 days.

Under the three-year coalition deal, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for the coming 18 months. 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.

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.

Gantz, a former armed forces chief, will be Netanyahu’s defence minister and “alternate prime minister”, a new position that Netanyahu will hold when Gantz takes the helm.

By assuming that “alternate” premiership once he hands over to Gantz, Netanyahu hopes to avoid having to resign under legal rules that allow a prime minister to remain in office even if charged with a crime.

(With news agencies.)