JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival-turned-partner, Benny Gantz, on Thursday postponed the swearing-in of their controversial new government as the Israeli leader rushed to quell infighting within his Likud party.
In a joint announcement, the two men said they would hold a swearing-in ceremony Sunday to give Netanyahu more time to hand out coveted Cabinet appointments to members of his party.
After three deadlocked and divisive elections, and a year and a half of political paralysis, Israel had hoped to swear in the new government Thursday.
Netanyahu and Gantz, a former military chief, announced last month they would put their differences aside and join forces to steer the country through the coronavirus crisis and its severe economic fallout.
It came at the price of the dissolution of Gantz's Blue and White party and his reneging on a key campaign promise not to serve under Netanyahu, who is scheduled to go on trial this month for corruption charges. Their much-scrutinized coalition deal, resulting in the most bloated government in Israeli history and new legislation to help Netanyahu cling to power, could only come about after the country's Supreme Court ruled it had no legal grounds to block it.
Despite the criticism, Gantz argued teaming up with Netanyahu was the only way to avoid a fourth election.
Just as the government was set to be sworn in late Thursday under strict social distancing guidelines, the two men announced the delay in a joint statement, saying Gantz had agreed to a request by Netanyahu to wait until Sunday.
The coalition deal calls for Netanyahu to serve as prime minister for the government's first 18 months before being replaced by Gantz for the next 18 months.
Their blocs will have a similar number of ministers and virtual veto power over the other's major decisions. Because Netanyahu's bloc includes several smaller parties, he only has a limited number of Cabinet ministries to hand out to the Likud rank and file.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute, said the incoming government's main achievement would be ending the longest political deadlock in Israeli history. But he said the deep distrust between the opposing camps left doubts on how they could govern together.
"The jury is still out if indeed the political deadlock is over and if we have a broad government that will exercise its authority," he said.
Gantz will start out as defense minister, with party colleague and fellow retired military chief Gabi Ashkenazi serving as foreign minister. Netanyahu's top deputy in Likud, outgoing Foreign Minister Israel Katz, will become finance minister. Yariv Levin, perhaps Netanyahu's closest ally, will become the new parliament speaker. The coalition will also include a pair of ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties and some other individual defectors to add up to 73 out of parliament's 120 members.
Critics have already accused the government of being out of touch by creating so many Cabinet posts at a time when unemployment has soared to 25 percent as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Critics also object to the newly created position of "alternate prime minister." The post that could allow Netanyahu to remain in office even after the swap and throughout his corruption trial and a potential appeals process.
The new position includes an exemption from a law that requires public officials who are not prime minister to resign if charged with a crime.
Netanyahu has been indicted with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving trading favors with wealthy media moguls. He denies any wrongdoing and blames the charges on a media-orchestrated plot to oust him.
Since his indictment last fall, he has repeatedly lashed out at the country's legal system. His legal woes and fitness to serve were central issues in the recent election campaigns.