Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday that he will temporarily give up the Communications Ministry for a period of three months. The move comes amid mounting pressure on him to do so in the wake of a graft scandal.
Speaking to reporters on his flight back from the United States, Netanyahu said that Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi would replace him for the duration.
Netanyahu gave no reason for his decision, but he has been under increasing pressure to give up the ministry due to a police investigation into allegations that Netanyahu and the publisher of the mass daily Yedioth Ahronoth Arnon Mozes negotiated an illicit quid pro quo deal that would have seen the prime minister pass legislation to hamper a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Mozes’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
Head of Zionist Union Isaac Herzog criticized the temporary move and the appointment of Hanegbi by Netanyahu.
In comments he made Friday afternoon, Herzog said “transferring the authorities of the communications portfolio for a period of three months following my appeal to the High Court of Justice is a sad joke by Netanyahu.”
“It is only a temporary evasion from what is known in advance,” he added.
Herzog and Zionist Union last month filed a petition with the court demanding Netanyahu be suspended from his ancillary position as communications minister, arguing the latest revelations from the criminal investigations into Netanyahu disqualify him from holding the post.
“It’s clear to everyone that Netanyahu has a serious conflict of interest as communications minister, and I am again calling for the portfolio to be transferred immediately,” Herzog said at the time.
Netanyahu said he would review the situation in three months. He currently also holds the position of foreign minister as well as his prime minister post.
The prime minister is being investigated in two separate cases. The first, known as “Case 1000,” is looking into claims that he and his family received luxury gifts worth hundreds of thousands of shekels from businessmen, among them Israeli movie producer Arnon Milchan.
A second probe, known as “Case 2000,” pertains to recordings of conversations between Netanyahu and Mozes.
Even before the corruption scandals, he had been called on to give up some of his ministries.
In April last year, the Yesh Atid party submitted a petition to the High Court against the number of portfolios that Netanyahu had reserved for himself at the time: health, regional cooperation, communications and foreign affairs, as well as the prime ministership.
The court ruled 4-1 that the prime minister could continue holding all four portfolios, but three justices gave the prime minister eight months to reduce the load, saying they might review the situation if he did not, Haaretz reported at the time.
The justices said that it was hard to believe that Netanyahu could properly manage so many ministries and that the situation was not appropriate in a democracy.
Judge Hanan Melcer opposed Netanyahu’s wearing of so many ministerial hats, but saved his harshest criticism for the fact that one of those ministries was communications.
“Given that the prime minister heads the executive branch, his activity as communications minister prima facie undermines the separation of powers because the media in the modern world is considered a kind of fourth branch,” Melcer wrote.
Hanegbi was minister without portfolio until December, when he received the regional cooperation ministry from the prime minister.