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Netanyahu seats new government in Israel seven days before trial

Bloomberg Jerusalem | Updated on May 17, 2020

Benny Gantz (left), leader of Blue and White party and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu   -  REUTERS

Israel finally began to install a government on Sunday after more than a year of political gridlock, just seven days before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu goes on trial for corruption.

The cabinet -- Israel’s first permanent government in nearly a year and a half -- was to have been sworn in last Thursday. But in keeping with the political turmoil that has come to define the country, the ceremony was put off due to a brief rebellion within Netanyahu’s Likud party over the assignment of cabinet jobs.

The haggling continued through Sunday morning, but eventually differences were sorted out and by early afternoon the hours-long procedure of swearing in the new governing coalition had begun. While the installation of the government is meant to restore stability after more than a year of political dysfunction, its unclear whether that objective will be achieved.

Last-minute cabinet snag extends Israel’s wait for government

In an effort to forestall a fourth round of voting and to tackle the economic ravages of the coronavirus outbreak, former military chief Benny Gantz put aside his oft-stated opposition to serving in a government led by the legally embattled Netanyahu and agreed to team up with him in a joint administration. Netanyahu is to serve the first 18 months, and Gantz is to take over in November 2021.

But because the distrust between these rivals runs so deep, their power-sharing agreement contains a raft of provisions meant to protect them that could breed policy paralysis. The accord gives their camps equal weight in cabinet and parliamentary committees, and Netanyahu and Gantz must agree on the legislative agenda. Netanyahu will retain prime ministerial privileges, including an official residence, throughout the entire tenure of the two-headed government.

Inside the political deal to save Netanyahu and push annexation

Netanyahu, 70, maintained his grip on power after the nations highest court rejected a petition claiming he was unfit to govern because of the criminal charges arrayed against him. Hes scheduled to go on trial May 24 after a two-month delay ordered by an ally who headed the Justice Ministry at the time.

He has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The prime minister, who claims he is a victim of leftists and journalists trying to hound him out of office because of his nationalist agenda, is accused of illicitly accepting gifts and scheming to influence legislation to benefit media moguls in exchange for favourable coverage. Earlier this month, the High Court of Justice ruled that he could form a government despite the criminal charges against him.

Israel’s political crisis has been closely linked to Netanyahu’s legal troubles, because staying in power has been his main strategy to bolster his prospects in court. The country has been operating without a permanent government since December 2018, when he first disbanded parliament and called an early election that became a referendum on his rule while under a legal cloud.

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Repeated electoral stalemates have stalled action on issues as consequential as passing a 2020 budget and how to proceed on his vow to annex West Bank land the Palestinians claim for a state. The economic and policy toll of the endless election cycle has been exacerbated by the virus outbreak, which has sickened more than 16,500 Israelis, killed about 270 and clobbered the economy.

Isolation measures caused unemployment to soar near 28 per cent from under 4 per cent, and the Bank of Israel expects the economy to contract 5.3 per cent this year as the government moves ahead on implementing an economic bailout program that could expand to as much as 100 billion shekels ($28.3 billion).

Published on May 17, 2020

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