Israeli politicians finally ended a year-long squabble on Monday evening by agreeing to form a government with Benjamin Netanyahu at its head for the first 18 months.
Opposition leader Benny Gantz agreed to enter into “an emergency national unity government” with the current prime minister, a man he had repeatedly pledged to oust, letting Netanyahu remain as PM until next autumn, assuming he is not convicted of corruption first.
In recent weeks former army chief Gantz has split his Blue and White party, claimed the title of Speaker in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, and moved forward on plans to limit Israeli prime ministers to two terms. Such a law, which has strong support, would require Netanyahu to step down.
In recent days Gantz told Israeli President Reuven Rivlin that he was unable to form a government, but amid scenes of protest across the country and threats of forcing a fourth consecutive election on the Israeli public, the two sides finally agreed terms.
They said there will be 32 ministers, split 50:50 between Gantz and his faction on the one hand and Likud and its right-wing and strictly Orthodox allies on the other, with both sides holding a veto over important issues.
The coalition will also include the remnant of the Labor party and command a 12-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset, with a large Arab bloc sitting in opposition.
Under the terms, Gantz and his deputy Gabi Ashkenazi will become defence and foreign minister respectively, with Gantz taking over as prime minister in 18 months or earlier if Netanyahu is convicted of bribery. Crucially, Blue and White won control of the justice ministry, ahead of Netanyahu’s trial.
At the top of Netanyahu’s agenda is the plan to annex large parts of the West Bank, scheduled for July this year.
Gantz has not stood in the way of US-inspired proposals to exert Israeli sovereignty over land many say is Palestinian. Mohammad Shtayyeh, the Palestinian prime minister, called the coalition “an Israeli annexation government”.
Pressure to strike a deal had been growing after protests against the government’s perceived inaction in the face of a severe economic downturn, but critics accuse Gantz of backing down.
Former BICOM chief executive James Sorene said he “played a weak hand badly then folded,” but Gantz defended himself, saying that a refusal to compromise would mean “dragging Israel to elections at a time of emergency”.
He added: “This is the time for leaders to choose what is right and put the lingering issues and personal scores aside.”
Yohanan Plesner of the Israel Democracy Institute said the mutual veto “will in effect paralyse the future government’s ability to formulate policy” and was “likely to prevent the possibility of anti-democratic legislation”.
He said: “This agreement does not initiate any policies, introduce proposals for reform, or present new plans for extracting Israel from the current crisis.
“Instead, it paves the path towards a government without a grand vision or clear goals that will be burdened with numerous wasteful ministries and cumbersome political agreements based upon distorted legislative constructs.”