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Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to push ahead with annexation of occupied West Bank

Prime Minister Netanyahu and his former rival Benny Gantz were today sworn in for Israel’s new unity government, ending the longest political crisis in the nation’s history.

Lawmakers in the 120-person parliament, the Knesset, formally approved the three-year coalition government with 73 voting for and 49 against. One member was absent for the vote.

Today’s swearing in of a coalition ends an impasse of more than 500 days, following three inconclusive elections that left the country in a political limbo.

It also comes just a week before Netanyahu is due to stand trial on corruption charges, which he denies. 

Addressing the Knesset before the vote, Netanyahu vowed to push on with controversial plans to annex large parts of the West Bank, including eastern Jerusalem.

The proposal is part of US President Donald Trump’s controversial peace plan, which also includes the establishment of a Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank and Gaza. 

Netanyahu said his incoming government should apply Israeli sovereignty over West Bank settlements.

‘It’s time to apply the Israeli law and write another glorious chapter in the history of Zionism,’ Netanyahu said on the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Such a move is seen likely to cause international uproar and inflame tensions in the West Bank, home to nearly three million Palestinians and some 400,000 Israelis living in settlements considered illegal under international law.

Netanyahu told the chamber that annexation ‘won’t distance us from peace, it will bring us closer’.

Israel’s unity government was agreed last month between veteran right-wing leader Netanyahu and the centrist Gantz, a former army chief.

Plans had been set for an inauguration last Thursday, but after 17 months without a stable government, Netanyahu asked for three more days to decide on cabinet assignments among his Likud party loyalists. 

Under the three-year coalition deal, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for the next 18 months.

Gantz will take on the new position of alternate prime minister for the first half of the deal, before he and Netanyahu swap roles.

The new government’s policy guidelines are focused on combatting coronavirus and healing an economy battered by the pandemic.

The Netanyahu-Gantz deal also says that from July 1, the government can initiate moves to annex Jewish settlements and other territory in the West Bank.

Some experts warn that Jordan may back away from its historic 1994 peace deal with Israel if the Jewish state tries to annex the strategically crucial Jordan Valley border region.

Speaking to German magazine Der Spiegel earlier this week, Jordan’s King Abdullah II said: ‘If Israel really annexes the West Bank in July, it would lead to a massive conflict with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.’ 

Opposition to the proposed annexation has also come from the European Union. 

The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc would use ‘all our diplomatic capacities’ to try to dissuade Israel from the move.

Gantz and incoming Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi are both known to have reservations about annexation and the international backlash and did not mention the issue in his Knesset speech on Sunday.

He did however address criticism of his move to join forces with Netanyahu, which split his Blue and White coalition, arguing that Israel needed unity after a year of bitter division.

‘My friends and I chose unity to defend Israeli citizens, not just from the challenges from outside our borders, but also from the hatred eating away at us from within and harming our resilience,’ he said.

The 35th government since Israel’s creation in 1948 includes representatives from across the political spectrum, with a record 34 to 36 cabinet seats.

Cabinet posts have been assigned to the left-wing Labour party, Blue and White, Netanyahu’s Likud and leaders from conservative ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.

The large cabinet and additional funds needed for the new position of alternate prime minister have prompted criticism as Israel seeks to address the economic fallout from Covid-19, which has infected more than 16,500 Israelis and caused more than 260 deaths.

Israel’s Yediot Aharonot newspaper called the incoming government ‘the most bloated and wasteful’ in the nation’s history, adding that Israel’s economy is ‘in an unprecedented state of emergency’. 

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