Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to members of the Knesset… (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images )
JERUSALEM -- Nearly two months after general elections were held, Israel's new government was sworn in Monday amid sharp criticism from opposition parties.
After a grueling six weeks of negotiations that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likened to solving a Rubik's Cube puzzle, Netanyahu succeeded in forming a five-party ruling coalition that controls 68 seats of Israel's 120-seat parliament. The government was formed just two days before President Obama pays his first official visit to Israel.
The new government will focus on tackling long-neglected problems, including the high cost of living and shortage of affordable housing, but the top priority will remain guarding the country from external threats, Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu promised that his new government would work for all Israelis, whether their sympathies lie with the coalition or opposition, but as he read the list of his new ministers, lawmakers of the United Torah Judaism faction walked out in protest.
Netanyahu hoped to include ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition but partners' demands to push legislation ending the exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from mandatory service left them in the opposition. This is the first government without ultra-Orthodox members in 20 years.
A considerable portion of the coalition consists of newcomers to national politics, including the powerful duo of Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, leaders of the Yesh Atid and Jewish Home parties, respectively.
Despite many fresh faces, Israel's policies regarding the West Bank settlements are not likely to change, as key positions including the Housing and Construction Ministry are held by pro-settlement politicians.
Opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich, head of the liberal Labor Party, greeted the new government with a strongly worded socialist speech, calling its leaders "rich, privileged capitalists" and dismissing celebratory claims of a new air in politics.
"Let it be said upfront, right now: We are your opposition. And starting today, we are taking up the fierce, national argument with you," promised Yachimovich, who vowed to fight Netanyahu's right-wing economy to secure greater equality.
While she doubted Netanyahu's new government would bring change on economic, social or diplomatic fronts, she promised Labor would reconsider joining his government if it was on the verge of a breakthrough in the peace process.
Among the new ministers are Moshe Yaalon, defense; Gideon Saar, interior affairs; Naftali Bennet, trade and industry; Yair Lapid, finance; Tzipi Livni, justice; and Uri Ariel, housing and construction. (Full list here)
Netanyahu will temporarily double as foreign minister. The portfolio is earmarked for his senior political partner, Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned the post in December and is currently on trial for corruption charges. Netanyahu will be caretaker foreign minister until the trial ends.
The Knesset, or parliament, also elected a new house speaker Monday, Yuli Edelstein.
At the end of a five-hour debate in parliament, lawmakers voted 68 to 48 to approve the new government, Netanyahu's third, and the ministers were sworn in.
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