Netanyahu resigns as communications minister amid probe into media scam
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Netanyahu resigns as communications minister amid probe into media scam

Likud’s Hanegbi will head the ministry for three months; opposition leader Herzog: ‘This is just the first stage; next, he’ll resign as PM’

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, February 19, 2017. (Olivier Fitoussi)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, February 19, 2017. (Olivier Fitoussi)

The government on Monday announced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s formal resignation from the post of communications minister amid a High Court petition and a criminal investigation into his alleged collusion with major media outlets.

Netanyahu presented his resignation letter to the cabinet secretary before he left the country on Sunday for an official visit to Singapore and Australia, but did not make the move public. The resignation was only officially announced in a letter to the High Court of Justice declaring the petition “redundant” due to the development.

The resignation will go into effect on Tuesday.

Netanyahu said last week that he will temporarily give up the Communications Ministry for a period of three months. Speaking to reporters on his flight back from a state visit to the United States, he said that Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, considered a confidant of the prime minister, would replace him for the duration.

His letter, however, which states that the resignation will take place “according to article 22 of The Basic Law: The Government,” means he will not be able to designate an interim replacement. His resignation was permanent, and Netanyahu will therefore be required to appoint a permanent minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with MK Tzachi Hanegbi during a Likud party meeting in the Knesset on February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with MK Tzachi Hanegbi during a Likud party meeting in the Knesset on February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition leader and Zionist Union chairman MK Isaac Herzog last month filed a petition with the High Court of Justice demanding the prime minister be suspended from his position as communications minister, arguing the latest revelations from the criminal investigations into Netanyahu disqualify him from holding the post.

According to Herzog, Netanyahu must give up the post due to a police investigation into allegations that he 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 Yedioth.

In the response to the High Court petition, the government said that since Netanyahu has now resigned, “the specific circumstances in the petition that relate to him serving as communications minister have now become irrelevant.”

Speaking at his weekly faction meeting and holding up the letter of resignation, Herzog said Monday that “this is just the first stage; next it will be a letter of resignation as prime minister.”

Zionist Camp chair Isaac Herzog at a faction meeting in the Knesset, February 20, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Zionist Camp chair Isaac Herzog at a faction meeting in the Knesset, February 20, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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 Hollywood movie producer Arnon Milchan.

A second probe, given the police moniker of “Case 2000,” pertains to recordings of conversations between Netanyahu and Mozes.

Even before the corruption scandals, Netanyahu faced pressure to give up some of his ministries, which at various points in the latest government’s life included (and mostly still include) the ministries of economy, health, regional cooperation, communications and foreign affairs, in addition to the premiership.

In April last year, the court ruled 4-1 that the prime minister could continue holding the four portfolios he held simultaneously at the time, but three of the justices gave him eight months to reduce the load, saying they might review the situation if he did not. 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.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2017. (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2017. (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)

Justice Hanan Melcer opposed Netanyahu’s wearing 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” – the state media regulator – “prima facie undermines the separation of powers because the media in the modern world is considered a kind of fourth branch,” Melcer wrote.

Hanegbi, considered a close ally of Netanyahu, was minister without portfolio until December, when he received the regional cooperation ministry from the prime minister.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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