In a surprise last-minute move, the long-awaited swearing-in of Israel’s new government has been postponed until Sunday, as caretaker Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he needed more time to distribute portfolios to future ministers.
The decision came just as the parliament, or Knesset, was set to begin Thursday’s ceremony. Netanyahu and his former rival Benny Gantz made the decision jointly, according to a statement.
“Netanyahu approached Gantz with a request to postpone the swearing-in until Sunday to allow him to complete the distribution of portfolios among Likud members,” read the statement. It added that Gantz granted the request.
Netanyahu’s centre-right Likud and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party agreed to join together earlier this year to create a unity government so the country can focus on fighting the novel coronavirus pandemic, not politics.
The decision came after three inconclusive elections and a year-and-a-half of political paralysis.
Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, and who faces a trial on corruption charges this month, will share the premiership on a rotating basis with his former rival Gantz, who is to head the government from Oct. 2021.
The government is expected to be the biggest ever in Israel’s history with as many as 34 ministers in a broad coalition that encompasses 72 out of 120 seats in the country’s parliament, the Knesset.
But that turned into the source of Thursday’s scheduling problems, as the swearing-in slowly slipped from the morning to the evening as it became clear Netanyahu still needed time to find ways find jobs for the many high-ranking members of the broad coalition.
Netanyahu’s long-time coalition partner Yamina, which the Likud said demanded too many portfolios, has found itself outside the coalition.
Its disappointed leader, outgoing Defence Minister Naftali Bennett, charged earlier on Thursday that his former patron had not shown sufficient seriousness in negotiating with the pro-settlement party.
“He chose to get rid of Yamina, which had been his nationalist backbone,” charged Bennett.
However, there is still a chance one Yamina member whom Netanyahu has been courting might join after all. That would give the coalition 73 parliament seats.
While Netanyahu is premier, Gantz is to serve as deputy head of government – a newly invented position – and defence minister.
Gantz broke his long-time vow never to serve with the indicted Netanyahu, arguing Israel needed a stable government to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and a related economic crisis.
For the first six months, the “national emergency government” is to focus on the coronavirus crises, with one major exception.
According to clause 29 of the Likud-Blue and White deal, as early as July 1, Netanyahu may ask his cabinet or the Knesset to vote on annexing West Bank land with settlements.
Netanyahu’s trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust is set to begin on May 24. He allegedly offered political favours to media moguls and wealthy businessmen in return for positive press coverage and expensive gifts.