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Bennett eyes health portfolio, coveted by Blue and White in emerging coalition

Yamina leader says he’ll take job if Netanyahu makes offer; negotiators from Gantz’s party trying to hammer out agreement with Likud on Health Ministry control

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at the 17th annual Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group, on February 24, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at the 17th annual Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group, on February 24, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett signaled interest on Tuesday in the health portfolio, as Likud and Blue and White negotiators tussled over which party would hold the office in the emerging unity government.

“If Prime Minister Netanyahu offers me the Health Ministry and to manage the coronavirus campaign, I’ll rise to the mission,” Bennett, who is currently interim defense minister, wrote on Twitter.

“In order to prepare for another wave of infection that may come in the fall… we must be prepared in advance so that we don’t need to close the Israeli economy and harm the livelihoods of a million Israelis,” he added.

It remains unclear whether Netanyahu will extend such an offer to his former right-wing ally Bennett.

Blue and White is seeking to have the office under its control in the next government, but is unwilling to agree to Likud’s current demands that it drop two other major portfolios in exchange, according to Hebrew media reports on Tuesday.

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Reuven Rivlin, center, and Benny Gantz, meeting in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

According to the Globes business daily, Blue and White was willing to relinquish “minor” portfolios, such as the Science Ministry, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, or the Strategic Affairs Ministry in exchange for the health portfolio. But Likud was seeking the Communications Ministry and Culture and Sports Ministry, which Blue and White was refusing to drop, the report said.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, the head of the Netanyahu-allied United Torah Judaism party, has headed the ministry for a decade but has decided to resign to move on the Housing Ministry.

Yamina was initially expected to stay out of the “national emergency” government being formed between Likud and Blue and White, with Bennett and fellow party member Ayelet Shaked angry at Netanyahu over certain concessions he had made as part of the deal.

The prime minister has won Gantz’s agreement to a limited annexation in the West Bank, but on the issue of judicial reform, which is also central to Yamina’s agenda, Netanyahu seems to have ceded ground, with Gantz refusing to allow changes to the structure of the Judicial Appointments Committee even as his party takes control of the Justice Ministry.

Naftali Bennett speaks with Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting with the heads of the right-wing parties on March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

During the talks last month, Yamina, whose Shaked served as justice minister in 2015-2019, warned that it had “no intention of being a fig leaf in a leftist government.”

Additionally, with Netanyahu ceding half of all cabinet positions to Gantz’s bloc, six-seat Yamina would be lucky to get two ministries even within what is set to be Israel’s largest government ever.

According to the deal signed by Netanyahu and Gantz, the government of 32 ministers will be expanded to 36 after the six-month “emergency period” during the coronavirus crisis, leaving open the possibility of Yamina joining at a later date.

The unity deal is currently being challenged in the High Court of Justice, with justices poised to decide by week’s end whether to uphold or disqualify segments of the agreement and whether Netanyahu can form a government while under criminal indictment.

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