After 508 days without a government, Sunday saw the long-awaited inauguration of Israel’s 35th Knesset. Israelis across the nation breathed a sigh of relief as the country entered a new political era and bore witness to the resumption of governance that has stood stagnant for so long. The spell of political deadlock had finally been broken.
On 7th May, just moments before the Knesset mandate was due to expire, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu submitted a letter to President Rivlin with the required 61+ MKs signatures supporting his candidacy for Prime Minister. On receipt and verification of Netanyahu’s backers, President Rivlin was obliged to hand over the mandate, giving Netanyahu a fourteen-day stint at forming a government. Having already garnered support of over 61 MKs, the challenges ahead were predominantly focused around the division of ministries as opposed to forming party coalitions.
The intent was to swear in the government on Wednesday 13th May, less than a week into the 14-day mandate period. However, with a visit from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo scheduled for the day after, the inauguration was delayed until the following Sunday. A sense of nervous familiarity filled the air across the nation. Rumours were ablaze that delays would lead to disagreements and potential collapse. Ultimately, party leaders Netanyahu and Gantz disproved the countries fears and used their additional days to think and rethink their ministerial selections.
The right-wing bloc, Yamina, was a coalition of three parties (Yamina, Bayit Yehudi and Tekuma) both religious and secular, led by Naftali Bennett (now former Defence Minister). Traditionally, they would back Netanyahu’s candidacy for Prime Minister and join a right-wing government without hesitation. Winning a disappointing 6 seats, Bennett’s requests to join the coalition were deemed unfeasible. Seeking at times, the Justice, Education and Health portfolios, no amount of negotiations and political wizardry were going to placate Bennett’s wishes. With negotiations and meetings running right up to the inauguration deadline, in what was a shock to many, Bennett chose not to enter the government. In an unexpected turn of events, Rafi Peretz of Bayit Yehudi decided to go against Bennett’s wishes and join the coalition; as a result, he was rewarded with the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry.
As the sun rose on Sunday 17th May, the day of the 35th Knesset inauguration had arrived. The government would be formed of 73 MKs from the following parties: Likud, Blue and White, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Labor (2/3 MKs), Derech Eretz, Bayit Yehudi and Gesher. Likud premier Netanyahu, who’s entering his fifth term as Prime Minister, would be at its head for the first 18 months. The coalition rotation deal stipulates on 17th November 2021, Benny Gantz will take over as Prime Minister for the following 18 months. Each leader will then rotate for a 9-month period in order to complete a full government term. A new position of Deputy Prime Minister has been created for Netanyahu and Gantz while they’re in-waiting, Gantz will additionally serve as Defence Minister.
The opposition is made up of 46 MKs from the following parties: Yesh Atid-Telem, Yisrael Beiteinu, the Joint List (Arab), Labor (1 MK), Meretz and Yamina. Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz’s former coalition partner, will serve as Leader of the Opposition.
The new government’s cabinet make-up and ministerial selections have already provoked much discussion. The cabinet will be comprised of 35 ministers, swelling to the largest cabinet in Israel’s history. At a time where both the global and Israeli economies have been severely dented due to the Covid-19 pandemic, numerous Israelis have viewed the growth in new ministries as an unnecessary cost to the country and a way to appease certain long-standing Members of Knesset with a ministerial title.
In a first for Israeli political history the cabinet will include a female Ultra-Orthodox minister (Omer Yankelevich, Minister of Diaspora Affairs) and an Ethiopian born minister (Pnina Tamano-Shata, Minister of Immigration and Absorption) both hailing from Gantz’s Blue and White party.
As the first cabinet meeting begun on Sunday afternoon, newly inaugurated Netanyahu laid out the government’s agenda specifying five key mission for the days ahead.
1. Addressing the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuring the healthcare system is prepared for a potential second wave of infection.
2. The passing of the state budget to revive the economy and work towards restoration to its pre-Covid-19 state.
3. To combat the impending threat from Iran.
4. To fight the war crimes probe in the International Criminal Court that has become a strategic threat to the IDF and Israel.
5. To address potential West Bank annexation and diplomatic issues that have arisen.
Gantz addressed the cabinet following Netanyahu, stating that “Israel was ending the worst political crisis in its history”. A unity government, Gantz declared: “Would end a period of Israel being ruled by half of its people and he would do everything in his power to ensure all Israeli citizens – Jewish or Arab, Heterosexual or LGBT – would feel at home”. His closing remarks commended Netanyahu on making the “right and courageous” move by cooperating with him and setting a date for their leadership rotation.
Lapid, newly ennobled Leader of the opposition, was last to speak and took a more sombre tone. His address begun with the statement that “Israel deserves better than the largest most wasteful government in the history our country” and ended by reminding the nation that “there is an alternative to the leadership that only cares about its own jobs and seats”.
As the sun set on day one of Israel’s 35th Knesset, world leaders from around the globe sent their best wishes to Prime Minister Netanyahu and his new government. For the average Israeli, there was an overwhelming sense of relief that this political nightmare had come to an end – for now.