JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s parliament approved on Sunday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new unity government, ending more than a year of political deadlock, but he still faces a trial starting next week for alleged corruption.
His decision to share power with former rival, centrist Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, opens the way for Netanyahu to proceed towards a pledged annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, land that Palestinians seek for a state.
After three inconclusive elections, the conservative Netanyahu will remain prime minister for 18 months before handing over to his new partner.
Gantz, a former armed forces chief, will be Netanyahu’s defence minister and “alternate prime minister”, a new position that Netanyahu will hold when Gantz takes the helm.
By assuming that “alternate” premiership once he hands over to Gantz, Netanyahu hopes to avoid having to resign under legal rules that allow a prime minister to remain in office even if charged with a crime.
Israel’s longest-serving leader, Netanyahu, 70, first came to power in 1996 and has served three consecutive terms since 2009. He goes on trial on May 24 on charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud, which he denies.
“The people wanted unity, and that is what it got,” Netanyahu told parliament, citing a desire to steer clear of a fourth election and the need for a national battle against the coronavirus crisis.
Lawmakers ratified the new administration by a vote of 73 to 46.
Netanyahu can now push forward his plan to extend Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank, territory Palestinians want for their own independent state.
“These regions are where the Jewish nation was born and rose. It is time to apply Israeli law on them and write another great chapter in the annals of Zionism,” he said.
But while Netanyahu has set July 1 as a starting point for cabinet discussions on the highly contentious issue, there is no publicly stated deadline for annexation of land that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
Palestinians have vehemently opposed such a move, urging international sanctions against Israel in response. It would be certain to heighten tensions in the West Bank and Gaza.
“These colonial and expansionist positions confirm once again his (Netanyahu’s) ideological enmity towards peace,” the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Gantz, 60, had cited the criminal charges against Netanyahu after the latest election in March when he again pledged to his own voters that he would not serve in a government with the veteran conservative leader.
Angering many of his supporters and splitting his own party, he made a deal in the end, saying the coronavirus crisis made national unity an imperative.
The new cabinet will have a record 36 ministers. Several new posts have been created to ensure both Netanyahu and Gantz can bring loyalists on board.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid ridiculed the public-health rationale behind the coalition, noting the number of Israeli COVID-19 victims on ventilators had fallen so steeply that the new government “could place a minister next to each bed”.
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Frances Kerry and Gareth Jones)