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Israel’s coalition deal: political stability with pitfalls

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(FILES) In this file photo taken on February 17, 2020 (FILES) A file photo taken on February 17, 2020 shows an election banner for the Israeli Blue and White political alliance (Kahol Lavan) with the face of (L to R) its leader retired army general Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, hanging in Ramat Gan. – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his former rival, parliament speaker Benny Gantz, agreed to form an emergency unity government on April 20, 2020, ending the worst political crisis in the country’s history. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Israel’s coalition deal between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz breaks a year-long deadlock but has pitfalls — from power-sharing mechanisms to West Bank policy and the premier’s corruption charges.

Monday’s agreement for a unity government, signed by Netanyahu and parliament speaker Gantz after three inconclusive elections in less than a year, seeks to give the Jewish state desperately-needed political stability as it confronts the coronavirus pandemic.

“After a year and a half of political stalemate and as the country endures one of the most severe economic crises in its history, it is high time for Israel to have a functioning government,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank.

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But he warned that the Netanyahu-Gantz deal risks creating a government “without a grand vision or clear goals” that would be vulnerable to being bogged down with “cumbersome political agreements.”

Here are the main points of the deal:

Power-sharing
Implementing the deal will require majority support in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, the Knesset.

That is likely to happen, assuming it is backed by Netanyahu’s unified right-wing bloc and most of Gantz’s supporters.

Netanyahu will serve as prime minister through the first 18 months of the three-year deal.

Gantz will first serve as “alternate prime minister,” a new position that must be created through an amendment of Israel’s so-called Basic Laws. Passing that amendment is a key part of the coalition deal.

After 18 months, Gantz takes over as prime minister, with Netanyahu serving as his alternate.

Through the first six months, the government will be defined as an “emergency” body-focused primarily on containing the COVID-19 pandemic and mitigating the economic devastation it has caused.

Israel has more than 13,800 confirmed virus cases, including over 180 deaths, and a nationwide lockdown has left huge numbers of people without an income.

Cabinet portfolios are split between the two camps.

Key ministries assigned to Netanyahu’s side include finance and interior, while Gantz’s side will control the defence and justice ministry. The position of the foreign minister will rotate.

Ministers can only be fired if there is agreement from both sides, and the prime minister cannot sack his alternate.

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Netanyahu’s trial
The prime minister was due to face trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust last month. The trial’s start date was postponed to May 24 because of the pandemic.

Under Israeli law, a prime minister can continue to serve while under indictment, but a regular cabinet minister cannot.

With his trial, including possible appeals, expected to last several years, the veteran premier did not want to be forced out of government when his term expired.

His expected transition to the alternate prime minister in 2021 likely solves that problem.

Netanyahu’s Likud party also retained significant say over the appointment of judges and prosecutors, influence that could help the prime minister as his case moves forward.

Legal cases have also been filed by non-government groups seeking to block an individual under indictment from serving as prime minister.

Under the coalition deal, if Israel’s top court bars Netanyahu from serving, his agreement with Gantz is dissolved and another election will be called.

West Bank annexations
For Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump’s plan for Middle East peace offered Israel an “historic” opportunity.

The plan — rejected by the Palestinians and condemned by much of the international community — gave Israel the green light to annex Jewish settlements and other strategic territories in the occupied West Bank.

Such annexations would violate international law and likely inflame tensions in the volatile region.

Gantz had praised Trump’s controversial plan but was more cautious regarding its implementation.

The coalition agreement says that any measures regarding Trump’s plan would be executed “in full agreement of the United States,” while maintaining “international dialogue” and “the need to maintain regional stability”.

At the same time, with Gantz’s permission, Netanyahu can bring Trump’s annexation plan to cabinet and parliament for discussion and approval from July 1.

Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh on Monday condemned the formation of an “Israeli annexation government,” saying it marked the end of the two-state solution.

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