Reporter's notebook

A changing of the guard, as Bennett’s new government hits the ground running

Substantive decisions made on key issues – a Meron commission of inquiry and power-sharing bylaws – highlight the difference between the new coalition and Netanyahu’s

The sign on the wall outside the cabinet meeting room in the Prime Minister’s Office still bore the name of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary, Tzachi Braverman.

But as the press corps stood in the hallway on Sunday morning, waiting for the first working meeting of the new cabinet, it was Prime Minister Naftali Bennett who strode down the hall with his entourage.

Soon after, the ministers of the 36th government were settled in their seats and ready for the start of the meeting.

It was not a celebratory gathering, unlike the one that took place late on June 13 in the immediate aftermath of the government’s swearing-in ceremony at the Knesset. Instead, the cabinet assembled to show it was ready to tackle the issues that affect Israelis’ everyday lives.

It wasn’t a moment to be taken for granted, watching a group of relatively young ministers from across the political spectrum surround Bennett in the same manner that we watched ministers surround Netanyahu for the past 12 years.

The moment marked a generational change — a new era in Israeli politics. The familiar self-assurance of Netanyahu’s during his baritone Sunday morning opening statements was a thing of the past, for now at least.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads his first cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 20, 2021. (EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP / POOL)

All those who were present instead had to start getting used to Bennett’s tones, at times hesitant but also seeming to reflect the importance of the occasion.

Braverman, the former cabinet secretary who is a Netanyahu loyalist, has not yet been replaced, so running the meeting in his stead was Interim Cabinet Secretary Lior Nathan.

In the hallways of the Prime Minister’s Office, the old guard around Netanyahu was gone, succeeded by relatively young political operatives, unable or unwilling to hide their excitement, adrenaline running high during their first few days on the job.

Shimrit Meir, 41, Bennett’s new diplomatic adviser, made her way into the chambers with her hands full of documents and folders. She is the first woman to take on that crucial job.

Matan Sidi, 25, Bennett’s personal spokesperson, was seen on the sidelines of the cabinet meeting room, having served as an aide to the Yamina leader through all four election cycles, including in the 2019 election, when Bennett’s and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked’s New Right party failed to cross the electoral threshold.

Meanwhile, the top advisers to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, a group of young operatives who have been a fixture at the Knesset for the past few years, have changed gears.

Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid arrives at the new government’s first weekly cabinet meeting, in Jerusalem on June 20, 2021. (EMMANUEL DUNAN / AFP)

They are no longer “ just” staffers at the parliament. Instead, overnight, they became top consultants at the Foreign Ministry and at the Alternate Prime Minister’s Office — Lapid’s chief of staff Gili Haushner, 40; his spokesman, Roy Konkol, 42; and Dana Pitlis Kadouri, 42, his political adviser.

An older generation has left and a new generation has entered.

Work to be done

On the wall of the meeting room was a large sign — “The Second Cabinet Meeting.”

The first meeting of the cabinet on June 13 had been mostly symbolic, taking place just a few hours after the rancorous plenum session that saw lawmakers from Netanyahu’s Likud and its allied parties yelling at Bennett throughout his inaugural speech, and the eight-party coalition winning the Knesset’s confidence by a single vote — 60-59.

However, on Sunday, there were substantive decisions to be made.

The government voted to establish a state commission of inquiry into the crush at Mount Meron in April, which killed 45 people, in Israel’s worst peacetime disaster.

Israeli rescue forces and police at the scene after a deadly crush, during celebrations on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel, on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Although a commission of inquiry has been on the agenda since the tragedy on April 30, Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners held up its formation. It is the first such commission to be set up since 2009, as Netanyahu blocked all requests for such powerhouse investigations over the past 12 years.

In a statement sent to the press shortly after the meeting, credit for the Meron inquiry was given to the politicians who had stressed the importance of such a commission — Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman.

But speaking to reporters after the cabinet meeting, other politicians also highlighted the roles they had played.

Benny Gantz, right, and Avigdor Liberman shake hands after a private meeting in the central city of Ramat Gan, on March 9, 2020. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar requested that the phrasing of the order to establish the commission include recommendations for changes to the infrastructure at the Meron site, stressing that he wants a written report to be submitted soon enough to affect preparations ahead of the festivities for next year’s Lag B’Omer, 10 months from now.

The government’s bylaws were also approved by the cabinet, after previous foot-dragging on the issue by Netanyahu with his last government.

A year ago, now-Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin (then a minister in Likud) and Avi Nissenkorn, who was justice minister for Blue and White, were tasked with putting together a document setting out the power-sharing bylaws for the 2020 coalition formed by Netanyahu and Gantz — a key document for the daily functioning of the government.

However, Netanyahu blocked all procedures that would enable power-sharing. Instead, the previous government operated on the basis of a regular majority rule, requiring Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to step in on several occasions over the past year to prevent the then-prime minister from riding roughshod over the cabinet, with the most recent example being the unlawful appointment (for several hours) of Ofir Akunis as justice minister.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (facing camera) leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, in Jerusalem, June 20, 2021. (Amit Shabi/POOL)

On Sunday, the new equal power-sharing bylaws passed without difficulty and with no awkwardness.

Nominations and considerations

Unlike in the United States, where political appointees are changed across the board in an incoming administration, Bennett is limited in the appointments he can make.

He can personally pick some 35 heads of departments in the Prime Minister’s Office, but he will continue to rely on hundreds of state employees, some of them who have been serving in the PMO for 15 to 20 years.

Bennett can also appoint secretaries, drivers, and heads of departments, such as the chair of the National Economic Council and the head of the Government Press Office.

The leading candidate for the crucial task of director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office is said to be Yair Pines, a former director general of the Housing Ministry and an erstwhile candidate for the post of housing minister when the portfolio was held by United Torah Judaism, during Yaakov Litzman’s turbulent and controversial time in that office.

United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Litzman at a press conference on June 8, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel / Flash90)

However, sources in government have told The Times of Israel that Pines remains very close to senior figures in United Torah Judaism, now an opposition party, and also to former finance minister Moshe Kahlon. Such close relations with former senior members of Netanyahu’s coalitions could be problematic for Bennett.

The Times of Israel has also learned that, in addition to Pines, Bennett is considering a number of other candidates for the key position, which was kept vacant by Netanyahu for over three years, despite criticism from the attorney general and the Civil Service commissioner.

Instead of appointing a director, Netanyahu relied on his fiercely loyal chiefs of staff Yoav Horowitz and Ronen Peretz — and cabinet secretary Braverman — as acting directors general.

Another appointment awaiting a decision, as the sign outside the meeting room made plain, is Braverman’s replacement as cabinet secretary.

(L to R) Then-finance minister Moshe Kahlon, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and then-cabinet secretary Tzahi Braverman attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on January 12, 2020. (Tsafrir Abayov / POOL / AFP)

The leading candidate is Shalom Shlomo, previously Netanyahu’s political adviser and Bennett’s chief of staff at the Economy Ministry. Shlomo also served as political negotiator following the fourth round of elections earlier this year, and is very close to Bennett’s new chief of staff, Tal Gan-Zvi, a long-term political operative and loyalist to the prime minister.

Teething (and parking) difficulties

The new advisers are also adapting to one of the practical difficulties of working at the Prime Minister’s Office — the scarcity of parking spaces.

Upon arriving on Sunday, it became clear that one of the main challenges would be finding, and keeping, a parking spot. “We are being called out of meetings to move the car because we’re blocking somebody else,” one of them told The Times of Israel, as the various advisers and journalists waited for the cabinet meeting to start.

When the session did begin — on time, for a change — the renovated cabinet meeting room could be seen for the first time.

The historic room has been refurbished, with new chairs and new wood paneling. It is still not a particularly impressive conference room, and had been previously renovated fairly recently.

But the symbolism was clear — the 36th government is a new beginning for the State of Israel.

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