On Thursday night, exactly five years after the outgoing government was sworn in, Benjamin Netanyahu was scheduled to inaugurate his new government. It is a historic moment, not only his fifth election victory - equalling David Ben-Gurion’s record - but also the first time that a designated “alternative prime minister” will be sworn in.
Benny Gantz is to serve as Defence Minister but he will also be defending his former rival so he can alternate with him in a year and a half.
With the new government on the road after nearly 17 months of interim government and three consecutive elections since the Knesset was dissolved in December 2018, the next big question is whether the annexation of parts of the West Bank will go ahead. The coalition agreement between Likud and Blue and White stipulates that Mr Netanyahu can bring the issue of annexation to the cabinet and Knesset from July 1. But it does not say he has to.
“Bibi used annexation for electoral purposes,” says one cabinet minister. “I’m not so sure he intends to make it happen now that he’s finally won. Perhaps he’ll make do with a symbolic annexation of just a few settlements or part of the Jordan Valley. I don’t think he wants to go ahead with it, though.”
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Israel for a nine-hour visit. It was a bizarre trip, at a time when senior statesmen are making do with phone-calls and video-conferences. In some ways, it was an advance American blessing to the new government – Mr Pompeo met not only Mr Netanyahu but also Mr Gantz and the intended foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazy.
In his remarks and interviews before and during the visit, Mr Pompeo barely mentioned the annexation, despite it being part of President Trump’s peace plan presented back in January. Instead, he stressed that the decision on whether or not to annex was Israel’s alone.
Mr Pompeo seemed much more eager to talk about another issue entirely – the threat of China and how the US expects Israel to get in line with an anti-China alliance.
The Pompeo visit was a welcome distraction for the ‘two prime ministers’ – a rare breath of statesmanship, among the tedious duty they both had this week of doling out ministries and committees to their Knesset members. This is set to be the largest-ever Israeli government, with thirty-six ministers but, even so, there will be disappointed MKs on both sides.
Some senior Likudniks, frustrated at their lack of promotion, were offered ambassadorships instead. Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan, one of the biggest of the frustrated Likud beasts, agreed to take a foreign posting only when Mr Netanyahu offered him the dual role of both ambassador to the United Nations and the United States – shuttling between New York and Washington.
Another embassy apparently up for grabs is the Court of St James, although reports that Likud’s colourful Communications Minister, David Amsalem, is on his way to London to take over from Mark Regev have yet to be confirmed.
Another senior minister unlikely to be back is Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing party Yamina. Mr Bennett’s party was offered the education ministry but was underwhelmed by the other more junior posts offered. Mr Netanyahu argued that since the party only has six Knesset seats, it could hardly expect more but, as one of the Yamina MKs grumbled, “it’s clear that Bibi is trying to humiliate by either forcing us to sit in opposition or to remain in coalition for bargain prices.”
Yamina has been ultra-loyal to Mr Netanyahu throughout the past year of political deadlock, refusing even to meet Mr Gantz to discuss the possibility of joining a government lead by him. But the prime minister has been distrustful of Mr Bennett ever since he resigned as his chief of staff 12 years ago.
Together with Blue and White and Labour, his coalition has an ample majority without the Yamina seats. “Netanyahu doesn’t want us now that he doesn’t need us,” says the Yamina MK. “He could hardly be making that clearer.”