Jerusalem, ZZZ, May 7 – Israel’s president on Thursday tasked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a unity government Thursday, signalling the probable end of more than a year of political deadlock, a government statement said.
“A letter assigning the task of forming a government to Benjamin Netanyahu was just sent to the prime minister’s office,” it said.
“The office of the speaker of the Knesset (parliament) was also informed.”
The veteran premier now has 14 days to seal the details of the coalition accord and sign his partners up to ground rules spelling out policy.
Failure would mean a fourth election, a presidential spokesman told AFP, after three inconclusive polls within a year.
Earlier Thursday, Knesset members voted for the deal between Israel’s longest-serving leader and his erstwhile rival Benny Gantz, then called on President Reuven Rivlin to mandate Netanyahu to form the government.
The accord will see the rightwing premier share power with Gantz, a centrist former military chief.
The two men plan to swear in their new administration on May 13, with Netanyahu remaining leader for 18 months before handing over to Gantz.
While each man is in power, the other will serve as alternate PM, a newly created position.
Representatives of Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White presented Rivlin’s office with a signed request, from 72 of the country’s 120 MPs, that Netanyahu be mandated to form a government.
It was delivered hours ahead of a midnight (2100 GMT Thursday) deadline.
The proposed government had been challenged in the high court, with opponents arguing Netanyahu was ineligible due to corruption indictments.
But the court ruled on Wednesday evening that there was “no legal reason to prevent the formation of a government” led by Netanyahu.
It added that the allegations against Netanyahu could be addressed in his trial, due to begin on May 24.
Netanyahu has been written off by pundits and rivals many times since taking power in 2009, but has invariably found ways to remain in the hot seat.
As well as rebuilding an economy shaken by the coronavirus, the new government will also decide on the possible annexation of large parts of the West Bank, a move from which successive governments have refrained since Israel occupied the territory in the Six-Day War of 1967.
– Lost year –
Israel has been without a stable government since December 2018, after successive elections left Gantz’s centrist Blue and White and Netanyahu’s Likud near neck-and-neck.
Netanyahu has remained in a caretaker role throughout.
In January, he was charged with accepting improper gifts and illegally trading favours in exchange for positive media coverage.
He denies wrongdoing, but if the trial goes ahead as planned he will become the first serving Israeli leader to be tried.
Gantz’s critics, including many former allies, accused him of betraying his voters after campaigning for cleaner politics and pledging not to serve under an indicted prime minister.
“Never have so few cheated so many voters for such miserable reasons,” former Gantz ally Yair Lapid, poised to become opposition leader, tweeted Thursday.
But Gantz has defended his decision, citing the need for political stability as the country faces the economic damage wrought by a coronavirus outbreak that has infected more than 16,000 people.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, said Gantz and Netanyahu had “zero trust” in one another.
“This is probably the main characteristic of this political agreement,” he told journalists.
“Therefore a new regime was created whereby we have two prime ministers, both with veto power.”
– West Bank annexations? –
In its first months the government will focus on the COVID-19 response.
The country took rapid measures to lock down and has succeeded in limiting the death toll so far to just over 200, in a population of some nine million.
In recent days it has started easing the measures and allowing some businesses to partially reopen.
From July 1, the government can also decide whether to follow through with the annexation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
President Donald Trump has given Washington’s blessing for the move, which the United Nations says violates international law.
Israel could also annex the Jordan Valley, another region Trump says he is ready to recognise as part of its sovereign territory.
Either move is liable to trigger Palestinian unrest across the West Bank as well as in the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinians see the West Bank as the mainstay of their future state and the United Nations has warned that annexation would seriously damage any hopes for lasting peace.
Plesner said if Democratic candidate Joe Biden were to beat Trump in November’s election he would likely oppose annexation, taking the idea “off the table”.
As such, he added, the government will have a “short window of opportunity between July and the US elections in November.”