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Netanyahu seats new government in Israel 7 days before trial

Benny Gantz,  the centrist Blue and White party leader, listens as  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left,  speaks during a swearing-in ceremony at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem on Sunday. (Adina Valman / Associated Press)
Benny Gantz, the centrist Blue and White party leader, listens as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks during a swearing-in ceremony at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem on Sunday. (Adina Valman / Associated Press)
By Amy Teibel Tribune News Service

Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed his contentious vow to annex West Bank settlements as Israel finally installed a government after more than a year of political gridlock.

Addressing parliament on Sunday before his Cabinet was sworn in, the prime minister signaled he’d go ahead with a move that is endorsed in the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan but would put Israel on a collision course with Palestinians, who claim the territory for a future state, as well as many countries around the world.

“The time has come to apply Israeli law to them and write another glorious chapter in Zionist history,” said Netanyahu, who is to share power with former military chief Benny Gantz and retained his grip on power despite multiple corruption charges. Opposition lawmakers heckled him as he spoke, calling out “bribery, fraud and breach of trust,” the charges he’ll face when his trial opens Sunday.

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. 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.

Repeated electoral stalemates led Netanyahu to double down on his right-wing’s dream to annex West Bank settlements, where more than 400,000 Jewish settlers live, in addition to the more than 200,000 who’ve settled in already-annexed east Jerusalem. The plan has already drawn opposition from the European Union, some Gulf Arab states and neighboring Jordan, raising questions as to whether Netanyahu will actually carry it out.

The endless election cycle has also exacted an economic toll that has been exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak, which has sickened more than 16,500 Israelis, killed about 270 and clobbered the economy.

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

While the installation of the government is meant to restore stability after more than a year of political dysfunction, it’s unclear whether that objective will be achieved.

To forestall a fourth round of voting and tackle the economic ravages of the health emergency, Gantz put aside his 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.

“It’s time to end the divisions and the polarization,” Gantz said in his remarks in parliament on Sunday.

But because the distrust between these rivals runs so deep, their power-sharing agreement contains a raft of provisions 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, Israel’s longest-serving leader, will retain prime ministerial privileges, including an official residence, throughout the entire tenure of the two-headed government.

The Cabinet was to have been sworn in last Thursday. But in keeping with the political turmoil that’s 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 swearing-in procedure began.

Netanyahu, 70, secured a fifth term after the nation’s highest court rejected a petition claiming he was unfit to govern because of the criminal charges arrayed against him. He’s scheduled to go on trial May 24 after a two-month delay ordered by an ally who headed the Justice Ministry at the time.

The prime minister, who claims he’s 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 favorable coverage.

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