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Israel West Bank annexation looms as unity government sworn in

Benny Gantz (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu (right) sign a coalition deal in Jerusalem on 20 April 2020Image copyright EPA
Image caption The two men will rotate as prime minister in 18 months’ time

Israel’s main political rivals become its leaders when a new unity government is sworn in on Thursday, ending over a year of unprecedented deadlock.

Benjamin Netanyahu returns as prime minister for a record fifth time while his electoral opponent Benny Gantz will be deputy under a power-sharing deal.

The country has been in political limbo after three inconclusive elections.

The two men have agreed to push forward with a controversial plan to annex part of the occupied West Bank.

The move is in line with President Trump’s Israel-Palestinian peace plan unveiled in January, which also envisages a Palestinian state in about 70 per cent of the West Bank, all of Gaza, and with its capital on the fringes of East Jerusalem.

The Palestinians – who claim all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem – have rejected the plan, dismissing it as biased towards Israel and a denial of their rights.

Israel has occupied the territories since the 1967 Middle East war. More than 600,000 Jews live in about 140 settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Most of the international community considers the settlements illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

In the time of Covid-19, Israel’s parliament looks different as lawmakers sit apart wearing masks, but some things remain the same.

Benjamin Netanyahu is still prime minister after striking a coalition deal with Benny Gantz to end an unprecedented year of political deadlock.

“It’s a remarkable achievement,” says journalist Anshel Pfeffer, who wrote a biography of Mr Netanyahu.

“The coronavirus certainly played a role by creating a feeling of emergency, a feeling that the arguments between the pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu camps needed to be put aside in favour of setting up a unity government.”

Some Israelis are outraged that a sitting prime minister is to go on trial for serious criminal charges. They’ve joined large protests. But others are glad to have a tested leader in charge during this pandemic.

“I’m happy to have a government,” says Carmi, a mother in Jerusalem. “Education and business, I guess that’s all it needs to take care of right now.”

The unity government – a rarity in Israel – was agreed upon after neither Mr Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party, nor Benny Gantz, who heads the centrist Blue and White party, managed to form governing coalitions after a record three elections in just under a year.

Under its terms, Mr Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for the first 18 months, during which time Mr Gantz will serve as his deputy. The roles will rotate after that.

Mr Gantz – a former military chief of staff – had initially vowed never to join a government led by Mr Netanyahu because the latter faces criminal charges.

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Media captionWhy Trump’s Middle East plan is so divisive

However, with the advent of the coronavirus crisis, Mr Gantz changed his position, saying an emergency national unity government was needed as these were “not normal times”.

The move led to the disintegration of the centre-left alliance of parties which supported Blue and White, with ertswhile colleagues accusing Mr Gantz of selling out.

While Mr Netanyahu has given his firm backing to apply Israeli sovereignty over all areas containing Jewish settlements, Mr Gantz has taken a more cautious approach, reportedly supporting a more limited annexation.

Both men have agreed on the need to annex the Jordan Valley – a wide corridor of land on the eastern part of the occupied West Bank – which they see as vital for Israel’s security.

The formation of the new government comes just 10 days before Mr Netanyahu is due to go on trial – the first time for a sitting prime minister in Israel.

He has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in connection with three separate cases. He is alleged to have accepted gifts from wealthy businessmen and dispensed favours to try to get more positive press coverage.

Mr Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing, claiming he is the victim of a political witch-hunt.

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