On Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as prime minister of Israel for his fifth term. Prime Minister Netanyahu protected his power after extensive political infighting within his own party as well as three contentious elections within one year. The new government will be a unity coalition government, as Netanyahu and his main political rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, will share power with Gantz becoming prime minister in November 2021.
In December 2018, the Knesset, Israel’s legislative body akin to a parliament, dissolved itself in anticipation of April elections. After the race ended with an extremely close margin that gave neither side a governing majority, legislators chose Netanyahu to recruit members into a majority coalition. He failed to garner enough support, and new elections were scheduled for September.
The same thing happened in September, with Netanyahu and his opponent, Gantz, both unable to gain a majority. A final round of elections was held this March, and after results indicated a similarly slim margin, subsequent negotiations led to the formation of the unity government that came to power this week. This qualifies as the first operative government the country has had in almost seventeen months.
Benny Gantz had, in previous elections, declared he would never serve in a coalition or unity government with Netanyahu. Motivated by the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, he conceded in April and agreed to compromise. As part of the unprecedented agreement, Gantz will serve as Netanyahu’s deputy, as well as minister of defense, for eighteen months before assuming the role of prime minister. He will have veto power, as will Netanyahu, over many significant governmental decisions except for annexation of the West Bank. The new government has also swollen in size, with a record thirty-six ministers, positions offered mostly to incentivize party leaders to join unity government.
The coalition has already experienced turmoil and faced criticism in its first days. The swearing in of the government was stalled by unrest within Netanyahu’s Likud party, as leaders jockeyed for those coveted ministerial appointments. The new leader of the opposition, who worked with Gantz in the Blue and White alliance that opposed Netanyahu, has expressed feeling betrayed by Gantz’s reneging on his commitment to fight against Netanyahu at all costs.
The new opposition alliance has already derailed the Knesset’s first attempt at legislation. Netanyahu will have to navigate this oppositional force while also directing the majority — comprised of his far-right Likud, Gantz’s centrist backing and two ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has more pressing concerns, though, as he has been roiled with criminal charges and indictments throughout this chaotic political process. Israel’s attorney general formally indicted Netanyahu in January on three criminal charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. The indictment alleges that Netanyahu received cigars and champagne from Hollywood businessmen and pressed an Israeli newspaper and website for more positive coverage, repaying them all with favorable legislation.
Netanyahu is the first setting Isreali leader to be indicted, and he could face over ten years in prison if convicted. Earlier this month, several advocacy groups and opposition leaders tried to legally bar Netanyahu from forming a government while under indictment, but Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that there was no legal basis for that decision. Netanyahu’s trial is set to start this Sunday, after being delayed due to COVID-19.
In his speech inaugurating his new government on Sunday, Netanyahu has promised to prioritize “jobs, jobs, jobs” in a country where unemployment has spiked to 26%. More controversially, he vows to annex the West Bank some time after July 1, a move Gantz is powerless to prevent, should the U.S. approve the decision.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Israel last week partly to discuss annexation. The Trump administration has previously expressed its support for annexation, and its January Middle East peace plan includes provisions for Israel to annex 30% of the West Bank. Netanyahu will likely seek to expedite the annexation process to avoid a potential change in U.S. administrations come January.
While the unity government puts an end to a year-and-a-half long political crisis which enraged many Israelis and halted important government activities, many harbor skepticism about the country’s future. Prime Minister Netanyahu has proven nimble and persevering in times of distress. Many doubted he could survive his corruption charges, yet he remains in power. Observers are pessimistic about the durability of the Netanyahu-Gantz power-sharing arrangement. Eighteen months provides Netanyahu with ample time to cement his position of authority. His trial proceedings may interfere with his plans, though. Regardless, the broad coalition in power and the mutual vetoes possessed by Netanyahu and Gantz could make it very difficult for this government to get much done at all.
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