Jerusalem (AFP) - Israel's parliament swore in a new unity government on Sunday led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his former rival Benny Gantz, ending the longest political crisis in the nation's history.
After more than 500 days without a stable government and three inconclusive elections, lawmakers in the 120-seat parliament approved a three-year coalition, with 73 voting for and 46 against. One member was absent.
The new government was set to confront serious crises in its first weeks, including the economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus and a looming battle over Israel's possible annexation of large parts of the occupied West Bank.
Addressing the parliament, or Knesset, before the vote, Netanyahu said his incoming government should apply Israeli sovereignty over Jewish West Bank settlements.
"It's time to apply the Israeli law and write another glorious chapter in the history of Zionism," Netanyahu said.
Such a move is seen as 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".
The coalition 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 Netanyahu asked for three more days to decide on cabinet assignments among his Likud party loyalists.
- West Bank annexations? -
Under the coalition deal, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for the coming 18 months -- a major victory for a leader due to stand trial in a week on corruption charges, which he denies.
Gantz will be alternate prime minister, a new position in Israeli governance, for the first half of the deal. He and Netanyahu will swap roles on November 17, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Israel on its new government, saying he hoped for a continued "policy of strengthening friendly ties and mutually beneficial cooperation" between the countries.
US top diplomat Mike Pompeo welcomed the swearing-in announcement in a tweet.
"We are extremely fortunate to have such strong and experienced partners in Jerusalem," he said.
The Netanyahu-Gantz deal says the government can from July 1 initiate moves to implement US President Donald Trump's controversial peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The plan, rejected by the Palestinians, gives the green light from Washington for Israel 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 days ago, 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."
- 'Bloated and wasteful' -
The European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Friday that the bloc would use "all our diplomatic capacities" to try to dissuade Israel's incoming government from going ahead with annexations.
Gantz and incoming Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi are both known to have reservations about annexation and the international backlash.
Gantz did not mention the issue in his Knesset speech on Sunday.
He addressed criticism of his decision 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, Likud and leaders from conservative ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.
The large cabinet and additional funds for the new position of alternate prime minister have prompted criticism as Israel seeks to address the economic fallout from coronavirus, which has infected more than 16,500 Israelis and caused more than 260 deaths, according to official figures.
Unemployment has soared from 3.4 percent before the crisis to 27 percent.
New opposition leader Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, an ex-Blue and White head who broke with Gantz over his decision to seek an alliance with Netanyahu, condemned the government as "the most expensive in the history of Israel".
"Israelis deserve better," he told the Knesset on Sunday.