Netanyahu takes office in deal that could see West Bank annexation

By Oliver Holmes

Benjamin Netanyahu has been sworn in as Israel’s prime minister, heading a unity government in which he will rotate the leadership with his former rival, Benny Gantz, in a deal that could see the annexation of large parts of the West Bank.

The coalition agreement ends a deadlock that has dragged on for more than 500 days. In that time, the country has held three back-to-back elections with neither side clinching an outright victory.

The Netanyahu-Gantz deal also hints at the potential annexation of parts of the Palestinian territories this summer, stating that Netanyahu could bring Donald Trump’s “vision for peace” to the cabinet for discussion from 1 July.

The US plan, pre-emptively rejected by Palestinian leaders, gives Israel full military control over Palestinians, much of their land and all of Jerusalem and Israeli settlements. Palestinians are provided with the option of economic incentives, land swaps and the prospect of some form of self-rule, but with significant caveats.

Speaking at the Knesset on Sunday ahead of being sworn in, Netanyahu said he would extend Israeli sovereignty over settlements in the occupied West Bank, calling it “another glorious chapter in the history of Zionism”.

Originally scheduled for Thursday evening, the ceremony was postponed hours before it was due to take place after Netanyahu asked for extra time to allocate ministerial portfolios to his Likud party, who were squabbling for cabinet positions.

To accommodate a broad coalition of divergent parties, the unity deal envisions a huge 36-minister cabinet.

Netanyahu, currently the interim leader, will remain in the role for 18 months before handing over to Gantz, a former army chief, for the remainder of a three-year term. Before taking the higher office, Gantz will be defence minister.

Facing the coronavirus pandemic, the two leaders agreed to form what they called an “emergency government” to steer the country through the crisis and its devastating economic fallout.

In his address to the Knesset on Sunday, Gantz announced “the biggest political crisis in Israel’s history” was over.

However, in the process of forming the coalition, Gantz saw his Blue and White party split apart, with resentment that its figurehead, who entered politics two years ago primarily on the promise to oust Netanyahu, had agreed to prop him up instead.

Gantz’s former running mate, now the head of the opposition, Yair Lapid, said the new government was the “largest, most bloated, most wasteful” in Israeli history.

The unity deal was largely seen as a career-saver for Netanyahu. Israel’s longest-serving leader is a deeply divisive figure in Israel and faces three damning criminal corruption cases, with hearings scheduled to begin later this month.

Under the coalition agreement, Netanyahu will have extra legal protections, meaning he will not have to resign as a public official despite the charges against him, which he denies.

Allies in his Likud party retain significant power. Yariv Levin, one of Netanyahu’s closest supporters, will be the new parliament speaker. Gideon Saar, who failed to replace Netanyahu in a December as Likud leader, was not given a ministerial post.

Following an EU foreign ministers’ meeting on Friday, Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, said the bloc would use “all our diplomatic capacities” to block Israel from unilaterally annexing land. Some EU countries have pushed for either economic sanctions or the recognition of a Palestinian state, but the body is divided.

In the Middle East, the response has been less muted. The king of Jordan, a country that has a peace treaty with Israel, warned his neighbour on Friday.

“If Israel really annexed the West Bank in July, it would lead to a massive conflict with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan,” King Abdullah II said in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel.

“I don’t want to make threats and create an atmosphere of loggerheads, but we are considering all options,” he said.