Ending Crisis, Israel Swears In Netanyahu-Led Government to Rescue Economy

By David M. Halbfinger

A unity government with Benny Gantz, a former rival, will brace for a second wave of the coronavirus while restoring “jobs, jobs, jobs,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promises.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel attended a swearing-in ceremony for his new unity government in Parliament in Jerusalem on Sunday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel attended a swearing-in ceremony for his new unity government in Parliament in Jerusalem on Sunday.Credit...Adina Valman/Knesset spokespersons' office, via Reuters
David M. Halbfinger

JERUSALEM — Ending a 510-day political crisis that three elections had failed to resolve, Israel on Sunday swore in a new government that was assembled to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, extending Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s record-setting tenure just a week before his corruption trial was set to begin.

The new government pairs Mr. Netanyahu, 70, with his erstwhile challenger, the centrist former army chief Benny Gantz, 60, who holds the new title of “alternate prime minister,” a veto over most major decisions, control over half the government’s ministries and an agreement to switch positions with Mr. Netanyahu on Nov. 17, 2021.

Israel’s long political stalemate, dating from December 2018, had kept the government in limbo, unable to pass major legislation or to enact a new spending plan reflecting changing national priorities.

In an inaugural speech in Parliament hours before his formal swearing-in, Mr. Netanyahu promised to deliver a new budget “that will prevent the economy from collapsing, that will guarantee stability, that will restore growth — a budget that will give you, citizens of Israel, hope, and a horizon, by restoring three things: Jobs, jobs, jobs.”

More than a million Israelis have lost their jobs since the pandemic forced most workplaces to shut down, and though schools and many employers have begun to reopen, the economy is far from back to normal.

The country’s aggressive measures worked to contain the virus, however: Israel’s death rate from Covid-19 is 31 people per million, a small fraction of the fatality rates in the United States and hard-hit countries like Britain, Italy and Spain.

While Mr. Netanyahu took credit for Israel’s coming through the pandemic relatively unscathed so far, he said he and Mr. Gantz would establish a “corona cabinet” to get ready for an expected second wave.

Mr. Gantz, who has been denounced as a turncoat by many of the center-left lawmakers who tried to help him oust Mr. Netanyahu, spoke defensively of his decision to join Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition in his own parliamentary address. He said it was no time “to remain blindly attached to what were yesterday’s hopes and aspirations.”

ImageBenny Gantz said it was no time “to remain blindly attached to what were yesterday’s hopes and aspirations.”
Benny Gantz said it was no time “to remain blindly attached to what were yesterday’s hopes and aspirations.”Credit...Adina Valman/Knesset Spokesperson's Office, via Reuters

The inconclusive elections had left Israel’s leaders with a clear choice between unity and “civil war,” Mr. Gantz said, adding: “The people said to us: Stop fighting amongst yourselves and get to work for us.”

The fighting did not cease on Sunday, however: Both Mr. Gantz and Mr. Netanyahu were repeatedly interrupted by angry shouts from the opposition.

Mr. Netanyahu drew the loudest cries of protest when he repeated his vow to annex territory in the occupied West Bank that the Palestinians have counted on for a future state. The coalition agreement with Mr. Gantz allows Mr. Netanyahu to pursue annexation, if the United States approves it, any time after July 1.

“These areas of the country were the places of the birth and the growth of the Jewish nation,” Mr. Netanyahu said of the West Bank, as shouts of “apartheid” could be heard from opponents of annexation. “And it is time to apply Israeli law and to write a glorious new chapter in the history of Zionism.”

Moreover, even as Mr. Gantz and Mr. Netanyahu spoke of unity and healing, analysts warned that the new government’s two-headed structure could substitute one form of stalemate for another.

“Rather than paralysis that is being manifested by consecutive election campaigns, we could have paralysis with a government that cannot decide anything,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute.