JERUSALEM — At the end of a fiery debate, Israeli lawmakers voted Wednesday to expand the government, finalizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's move to bring the centrist party Kadima into his coalition.
Shaul Mofaz, who only recently assumed leadership of both Kadima and the overall opposition from his predecessor, Tzipi Livni, was appointed a Cabinet minister and vice premier.
The deal early Tuesday morning between Netanyahu's ruling Likud Party and Kadima to expand the government surprised Israelis because it came amid moves to dissolve parliament a year early and hold general elections in the late summer. The agreement added 28 lawmakers to Netanyahu's government, giving it control of 94 out of the 120 seats in parliament, one of the largest coalitions in Israel's political history.
Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovitch was appointed head of the opposition, rendered small but feisty by Kadima's switching sides. Dismissing the outgoing opposition leadership as a "ridiculous farce," Yachimovitch pledged to lead the opposition firmly, with an emphasis on socioeconomic issues.
The 2013 budget will be one test of strength for the new super-sized coalition, amid warnings of a slowdown in economic growth and an increasing deficit that might force the government to tighten expenditure by bringing taxes up and benefits down.
More immediately, the government will have to deal with other politically charged matters, such as legislation instituting mandatory national service — military or civil — for all Israeli citizens, to replace the Tal Law exempting ultra-Orthodox young men from mandatory military service.
In addition, the government must reconcile its pro-settlement policies with an unequivocal Supreme Court instruction to dismantle Givat Haulpana, a settlement outpost built in the late 1990s on lands claimed by Palestinian owners.
Wednesday's discussion in the Knesset, or parliament, was stormy from the start as opposition lawmakers slammed the new alliance in harsh words. At one point, the discussion was stopped to verify protocol on rumored verbal agreements kept from lawmakers.
The delay was a first small victory for opposition members, who succeeded in embarrassing Netanyahu, obliging him to promise any future addition to the published coalition agreements would be made public.
— Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center right, shakes hands with Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz after the latter was sworn in as a Cabinet minister and vice premier at the Knesset on Wednesday. Credit: Gali Tibbon / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.