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Israel swears in Netanyahu-Gantz unity government

In an unprecedented power-sharing agreement, the two lawmakers agreed to split the three-year term with each serving as prime minister for 18 months.
Image: Israeli election banner
An election banner for the Israeli Blue and White political alliance, featuring Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu, in Ramat Gan.Jack Guez / AFP - Getty Images

Israel’s new unity government was sworn in Sunday, sealing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s grip on power for another 18 months, at least, as he embarks on his fourth consecutive term in office and fifth overall.

It is an emphatic victory for Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who was indicted on corruption charges in November but has managed to maintain his grip on power despite the circumstances.

Israel’s top court ruled this month that Netanyahu can form a new government while being under indictment. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and is scheduled to stand trial this month.

After three inconclusive elections in the space of a year, Netanyahu and former military chief Benny Gantz agreed last month to put aside their differences to battle the coronavirus pandemic that has upended life in Israel and around the world.

Image: Israeli protesters
A protest by supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in front of Israel's Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on May 3. Tsafrir Abayov / AP

In an unprecedented power-sharing agreement, the two lawmakers agreed to form a unity government last month in which Netanyahu, 70, will serve as prime minister for the first 18 months of the three-year term before Gantz, 60, takes over for the remaining 18 months.

For the first half, Gantz, who once pledged not to serve in a government led by an indicted prime minister, will be the alternate prime minister as well as the defense minister. Netanyahu will assume those rules when Gantz becomes prime minister.

The agreement announced on April 20 says the new government's top priority will be tackling the coronavirus outbreak.

In July, after consulting with Gantz, Netanyahu will be able to bring parts of President Donald Trump's Mideast peace plan regarding the annexation of parts of the West Bank up for debate in the Cabinet and and for approval by the government and the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, according to the agreement.

If implemented, the peace plan released in January would create a conditional path to statehood for Palestinians while recognizing Israeli sovereignty over a significant portion of the West Bank.

Palestinians rejected the plan as unworkable. They hope the West Bank, which was captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, will one day form part of their future state.

The area is currently home to almost 2.7 million Palestinians and more than 400,000 Israelis, according to figures collated by the Israeli organization Peace Now, which advocates for the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

Israeli settlements there are considered illegal by most of the international community.

Nevertheless, extending sovereignty to parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank as soon as possible became one of Netanyahu’s key campaign promises. The new government, however, is divided over the issue as Gantz has said he is against unilateral annexation.

A senior U.S. administration official told NBC News last month that Washington's recognition of Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank was conditional on the Israeli government negotiating with the Palestinians along the lines set forth in Trump's peace plan.

References to annexation were notably absent from policy priorities published Wednesday by the incoming government. Instead, the guidelines stressed the need to tackle the coronavirus and rebuild the economy, among other issues.