Big government – Israeli-style
May 26, 2020 | Amotz Asa-El
A complex political betrothal in Jerusalem
The sense of finality was a relief, and the timing could hardly have been more symbolic.
With schools scheduled to fully reopen the following Sunday, and thus end the education system’s lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Knesset assembled on Thursday, May 14 in order to swear in Israel’s 35th Government, following three inconclusive elections and 500 days of political deadlock.
Instead, the odd and convoluted political structure Binyamin Netanyahu produced en route to his fifth premiership refused to rise to its feet, thus exposing its most glaring weakness – an obesity problem.
Realising it would split the ruling Likud’s main competitor, Blue and White, and thus restore the stability Israeli politics had lost, in late March, Netanyahu offered his rival Lt. Gen. (ret.) Benny Gantz a national unity deal whereby they would each be able to appoint the same number of ministers and rotate the premiership between them. Moreover, the deal could go forward even if Gantz failed to bring his entire faction to this political betrothal.
Blue and White indeed broke up, and Netanyahu thus seemed to end up with the best of both worlds. On the one hand, he was the head of a very broad government, while, on the other hand, he had a humbled and weakened coalition partner whose faction of 33 lawmakers had shrunk to only 17, because the rest would not serve under the indicted Netanyahu.
However, the deal’s parity principle meant that Netanyahu would have fewer cabinet positions to distribute among Likud’s 36 lawmakers. Though he foresaw this, and expanded the government from 22 to an unprecedented 35 ministers, it still left him with hardly a dozen cabinet positions to distribute among his own people, as the rest of his allotment was reserved for Likud’s ultra-Orthodox satellite parties.
The result was an unsolvable puzzle and a gathering revolt.
With the Knesset vote hours away, two of Netanyahu’s most able and loyal followers, outgoing Agriculture Minister Tzahi Hanegbi and outgoing deputy Defence Minister Avi Dichter, a former head of Shin Bet, said they would not show up for the vote, after having heard nothing concerning their appointments.
Until that moment, Netanyahu seemed on top of the complex situation he created, benefitting from a mixture of political improvisation and creative manoeuvring.
The improvisation was about creating new positions, and the manoeuvring was about vacating old ones.
The most innovative move involved Gilad Erdan, the outgoing Internal Security Minister, who was offered ambassadorships to both the United States and the United Nations, simultaneously. The 49-year-old lawyer, who has been a minister for the past 11 years, agreed, thus clearing one senior cabinet seat.
Another solution was to slice slivers from existing ministries, and also create new ones, a formula that generated six new ministerial openings, including the bizarre combined Higher Education and Water Affairs portfolio, which went to outgoing Environment Minister Ze’ev Elkin.
Even more inventively, Netanyahu created a Ministry for Settlements and handed it to outgoing Minister for Diaspora Affairs Tzipi Hotoveli, with the caveat that she will become Ambassador to the United Kingdom in three months’ time, and then hand over this new ministry to outgoing Agriculture Minister Tzahi Hanegbi. In the meantime, Hanegbi will be a minister without portfolio.
A similarly complex deal was struck with outgoing Culture Minister Miri Regev, who will be Transport Minister for 18 months, and then, when Gantz replaces Netanyahu as prime minister as per their agreement, she has been promised the job of foreign minister.
Such were the ministerial inventions.
Another apparent political ploy was to push overboard outgoing Defence Minister Naftali Bennett and his Yamina faction, by making them an offer they could not accept.
The party that held the Defence, Education and Transport ministries in the last government was asked to make do with Education, a junior ministry, and a deputy minister. Yamina refused and is going into opposition.
But then again, Netanyahu struck a separate deal with the outgoing Education Minister, Rafi Peretz, whereby the former chief rabbi of the IDF will split from Yamina and join the new Government as Minister for Jerusalem Affairs.
Yet this meant one less cabinet seat for Likud’s politicians – as did the deal Netanyahu struck with MK Orly Levi-Abekasis, the 46-year-old lawyer who defected to Likud’s fold from the Labor-Meretz alliance, and for whom Netanyahu created a Ministry for Strengthening and Advancing Community.
Added up, these developments created a feeling within Likud that Netanyahu was neglecting or cutting out his loyalists. Most notable among them is former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, whom Netanyahu publicly presented during the election campaign as his prospective candidate for finance minister. Instead, the popular Barkat was offered assorted junior ministries, all of which he rejected, and will be a backbencher.
Avi Dichter will also observe the large cabinet from the outside, as will former Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, in what the media has portrayed as punishment for challenging Netanyahu in a primary election for Likud’s leadership last December.
A Sa’ar loyalist, Sharren Haskel was offered the position of Ambassador to Australia. She however decided to refuse.
Likud’s leaders must have been particularly frustrated to see what was happening with the coalition’s other major bloc, where 16 cabinet seats were being distributed among 19 lawmakers from Blue and White and Labor.
This inflationary inversion of Likud’s predicament resulted in another oddity of government, the installation of a second minister in the Defence Ministry. Social activist Michael Biton, a former mayor of the southern town of Yeroham, will be in charge of civilian affairs at the ministry.
All the turmoil within Likud resulted in the postponement of the Knesset’s swearing-in vote from Thursday, May 14 to the following Sunday, May 17.
The new government was still approved by a vote of 73 to 46, the kind of handsome majority that the complex coalition deal was engineered to create. However, the new coalition’s imbalances and internal stresses were laid bare even before its birth, thus denting its public image, and raising doubts concerning its longevity.
All this is on top of the daunting issues it will have to tackle. The most urgent challenge will naturally be the coronavirus pandemic.
The Health Ministry, which was headed by United Torah Judaism’s controversial Yaakov Litzman, will pass to Likud’s Yuli Edelstein, the former Speaker of the Knesset. Litzman decided to leave that ministry of his own volition after having controlled it for the better part of a decade, and will now be Minister of Housing.
However, his departure from health likely reflects the fact that the 71-year-old ultra-Orthodox rabbi’s effectiveness during the crisis was widely criticised. Among other issues, during the current pandemic, he seemed to have vanished into the shadow of Netanyahu, who personally assumed leadership of Israel’s response to the crisis, appearing nightly on TV with instructions for the public.
Litzman is also the subject of a police investigation over alleged interference with efforts to extradite accused child sex offender Malka Leifer to Australia to face trial.
For the 61-year-old Edelstein, this will be the moment of truth for his 24-year political career. After two ministerial stints and seven years as Knesset Speaker, the former Soviet Zionist activist, who endured KGB interrogations and Soviet gulags, will now be at the heart of a national struggle. This will test his policy chops and political leadership on a daily basis, even as his name is being touted as one of Netanyahu’s potential successors.
The pandemic’s other side, the economy, will become the task of outgoing Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz, in his new role as Finance Minister – after Netanyahu reneged on his pre-election promise to Barkat.
The 64-year-old Katz’s main challenge will be to tackle the urgent employment crisis that the pandemic has caused. Unemployment soared almost overnight from a negligible 3.6% to over 25%, as more than a million Israelis lost their jobs under the coronavirus lockdown.
Katz is a key party boss within the Likud and his appointment is a vote of confidence on Netanyahu’s part, which further enhances Katz’s position as the man currently best placed to become the Likud’s next leader. Yet failure in his new portfolio could easily undo his frontrunner status.
Also in the thick of the pandemic commotion will be new Education Minister Maj-Gen (res) Yoav Galant, 61, the outgoing Immigration and Absorption Minister.
The task of tackling the pandemic will be coordinated through a special “coronavirus cabinet” in which Edelstein, Katz and Galant will be joined by Netanyahu and Gantz.
Gantz himself, as Defence Minister, will be tasked with preserving the IDF’s resources as the Government greatly expands civilian spending in the wake of the pandemic on two separate fronts: by enlarging the health budget, and through stimulating businesses and compensating the lockdown’s economic victims.
Internationally, the challenge ahead for the new Government will be the Trump Administration’s Middle East peace plan, released in January, and its suggestion that Israel could apply sovereignty to parts of the West Bank.
Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed to go ahead with applying sovereignty, but whatever he does on this prickly front will have to be done in concert with Gantz, as his Defence Minister, and with Gantz’s second in command, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Gabi Ashkenazi, the new Foreign Minister.
Both former IDF chiefs agree in principle with the idea of annexing the sparsely settled Jordan Valley area, which a majority of Israelis consider strategically vital. However, they will be more attentive to European and Arab hostility to any prospective change in the legal status quo there, especially from strategic ally Jordan, who is already voicing strong opposition to any such move. Coupled with the pair’s reported lack of appetite for annexing Israeli settlements west of the Jordan Valley, this issue might strongly test the new coalition’s integrity.
A third challenge will be the judiciary, as the Justice Ministry passes from Likud to Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn, whose first task will be to appoint a new State Attorney.
An employment lawyer and former chairman of the Histadrut labour federation, the 53-year-old Nissenkorn’s task, as his party sees it, will be to protect the judiciary from any potential manipulation by Likud during Netanyahu’s upcoming trial for alleged bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, which is scheduled to open on May 24.
Outgoing Likud Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a 44-year-old lawyer, will be the new Internal Security Minister, a role in which he will have to immediately nominate a new commissioner of the Israel Police Force.
Netanyahu’s opponents see Ohana as a proxy for the PM, installed to serve his boss’s interests in the judiciary. He will be scrutinised in his new position in that same spirit, only now that suspicion will be harboured, not only by the Opposition and the media, but also by the Blue and White ministers Ohana will find sitting across from him at the cabinet table.
Also on the judicial front, Blue and White will resist prospective efforts by Likud to pass legislation that would weaken Israel’s Supreme Court by allowing a supermajority in the legislature to override court rulings.
If Likud chooses to resume these efforts as promoted by some of its legislators in the past, it will likely be able to count on sympathetic assistance from new Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin – a 50-year-old outspoken lawyer, the outgoing Tourism Minister, and one of Netanyahu’s closest confidantes.
One of the less-discussed appointments is Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, a 38-year-old Ethiopian-born lawyer who arrived in Israel at age three in Operation Moses. This was a famous 1984 mission that secretly brought much of the Ethiopian Jewish community to Israel.
Tamano-Shata was a TV presenter before joining the Yesh Atid party that later became part of Blue and White.
When her party leader, Yair Lapid, decided to part with Gantz after the latter’s decision to accept Netanyahu’s unity deal, Tamano-Shata sided with Gantz, saying she was heeding the public’s urge for a broad government in the wake of the pandemic.
A mother of two and a lawmaker for the past five years, Tamano-Shata is the first Ethiopian immigrant to become a minister.
Another new first is Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich, also of Blue and White – a lawyer, mother of five and the first ultra-Orthodox woman to hold a cabinet portfolio in Israel.
Both are happy precedents in any event, but doubly so in the aftermath of the most excruciating and perplexing 500 days in the history of Israeli politics.