There was a feeling of disbelief among the Blue and White ministers sworn in on Sunday. Unlike the Likud ministers who are cabinet veterans and mainly disgruntled at being moved sidewise, they are mostly idealistic forty-somethings and new to national politics. “I’m just trying to get used to having such a large staff,” one of them texted. “There’s so much happening in this ministry, I hope I’ll get a grasp of it by the end of the term,” said another.
After over a year’s campaigning in three elections, they could hardly believe they were in office.
Even their leader, Benny Gantz, admitted in an interview that despite having worked on the deal with Benjamin Netanyahu for weeks, “until the swearing-in itself, I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. Even on the morning, a few hours before.”
He wouldn’t deny that there remained animosity with Mr Netanyahu. “I believe we can now start to rebuild trust,” he said. But even senior Likudniks don’t trust their leader. Former public security minister Gilad Erdan agreed to be Israel’s next ambassador to the United Nations and the United States but, until he actually leaves, he insisted on being sworn in on Sunday as temporary regional-cooperation minister, just in case the prime minister reneges on his ambassadorial promise. There is no trust within the new government and when asked after being sworn in if he believed Mr Netanyahu would keep his promise to make way in November 2021, Mr Gantz could only respond: “I hope so.”
The government faces many obstacles, the first of which comes on Sunday when Mr Netanyahu is scheduled to arrive in court for the opening of his trial. The judges of the Jerusalem District Court rejected his request not to attend the reading of the charges.
On the campaign trail, Mr Netanyahu promised he would not try to evade justice and that he could run Israel while being on trial – but his first clash with the judges put that in doubt and does not bode well for the new government’s longevity.
Mr Gantz made it clear that the prime minister going on trial was the main assurance that “we are not crowning Netanyahu forever” and was Blue and White’s guarantee that the rule of law would be maintained. He insisted that he would be involved in all senior law enforcement and legal appointments. “We are in government to safeguard the legal institutions and anchors of democracy,” he insisted. “I’m not wallpaper. I have positions and opinions and I’m part of the process.”
When asked his opinion on the next obstacle, annexation in the West Bank, he was much less forthright. He is not the only one to be ambiguous.
Mr Netanyahu campaigned over the past year on his promise to carry out annexations and in his inaugural speech in the Knesset on Sunday said that the West Bank is the “place of the birth and the growth of the Jewish nation,” and that “it is time to apply Israeli law and to write a glorious new chapter in the history of Zionism.” But hours later, at the first meeting of the new government, he did not mention annexation as a priority.
The next morning, as the new foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi - now Mr Gantz’s right-hand man - entered his new office, he said that the peace plan presented by the Trump administration in January is a “historic opportunity to shape the future of the State of Israel for decades to come,” and that Israel would proceed “responsibly, in coordination with the United States while safeguarding peace agreements and Israel’s strategic interests.”
Behind all this smoke is an American administration which is not giving Israel a clear message as to whether it wants or will even allow Israel to carry out the section of the plan which envisages Israeli sovereignty over a third of the West Bank. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who visited Israel last week failed to dispel the uncertainty. Will the administration make its position clear by the election in November? Will it support unilateral annexation or insist on holding talks first with the Palestinians and other Arab regimes?
Many on the Israeli right who have long clamoured for annexation believe the ambiguity is what Mr Netanyahu wants and that annexation for him was no more than a glittering prize to rally the base. But now the election has been won there are plenty who can be blamed for not annexing – the coalition partners dragging their feet, the European Union threatening sanctions, the lack of a green light from the Americans and of course the Palestinians.
On Tuesday night, Mahmoud Abbas announced that due to Israel’s annexation plans, the Palestinian Authority is no longer bound by any of its agreements, not even to continue security coordination. A forceful statement but, like Mr Netanyahu’s annexation promises, one he has made before and failed to act upon. The two leaders have thirty yesrs combined in office and long experience in breaking promises.