Tussle over Cabinet posts delays swearing-in of Israel's govt

A demonstrator holding a sign, with the faces of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Mr Benny Gantz, that says in Hebrew "Israeli ashamed" in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on May 9.
A demonstrator holding a sign, with the faces of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Mr Benny Gantz, that says in Hebrew "Israeli ashamed" in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on May 9.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Netanyahu to keep grip on power under agreement with Gantz

JERUSALEM • The planned inauguration yesterday of an Israeli unity government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been postponed until Sunday, in last-minute wrangling over Cabinet appointments, according to an official statement.

Under a deal with his former election rival Benny Gantz, Netanyahu was to serve as prime minister for 18 months before the former armed forces chief replaces him.

Mr Gantz had agreed to the delay to give Netanyahu more time to allocate Cabinet posts, the statement said. Netanyahu, 70, maintains his grip on power as the scheduled May 24 start date of his corruption trial approaches.

He clinched another stint in office after the nation's highest court last week rejected a petition claiming he was unfit to govern because of the criminal charges he faces.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu won enough support to put together a majority government after reaching coalition agreements with ultra-orthodox lawmakers. The small Labour and Gesher parties had already agreed to become junior partners in a government that will be the largest in Israeli history.

The Netanyahu-Gantz alliance was a partnership forged in crisis.

It was with the declared purpose of averting a fourth election and focusing on the country's coronavirus outbreak that the two men put aside their differences after fighting to a draw in three inconclusive elections. But the deep distrust between them has coloured their power-sharing agreement, which threatens to breed policy paralysis because of the many protections each of them demanded.

The accord gives their camps equal weight in Cabinet and parliamentary committees, and Netanyahu and Mr Gantz must agree on the legislative agenda. Netanyahu will keep prime ministerial privileges, including an official residence, throughout the entire tenure of the two-headed government.

"On most decisions, this agreement, by giving veto to both sides, ensures that Israeli grand strategy in the proactive sense will be limited and Israeli policies therefore will be mostly reactive across the board," said Mr Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group consultancy.

The sides are "agreeing to disagree over major policy issues and postponing them", he said.

Israel's political crisis has been closely linked to Netanyahu's legal troubles, because staying in power has been his No. 1 strategy to bolster his prospects in court.

Israel has been 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.

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 ravages of the coronavirus, which has sickened more than 16,500 Israelis, killed over 260 and clobbered the economy. Isolation measures caused unemployment to soar nearly 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 starts to implement a bailout programme that could expand to as much as 100 billion shekels (S$40.2 billion).

Ultimately, it was the health emergency that cracked open a way out of the political impasse and extended Netanyahu a political lifeline. For more than a year, Mr Gantz had insisted he would not sit in a government led by the legally entangled Netanyahu and his vows to elevate public norms and reunite a divided country made him a formidable challenger.

He reneged after a third election deadlock in March and the virus outbreak, saying the country needed to find a way out of its policy logjam. Barring any hitches, he is to take over in November next year.

Netanyahu 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.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 15, 2020, with the headline 'Tussle over Cabinet posts delays swearing-in of Israel's govt'. Print Edition | Subscribe