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COVID is at best PM's 2nd priority; personal matters are 1st

Blue and White minister quits, citing Netanyahu’s skewed focus, curbs on rallies

‘I can no longer sit in a government in whose leader I haven’t an iota of faith,’ Asaf Zamir says of Netanyahu; accuses PM of putting his legal woes before virus fight

Blue and White MK Asaf Zamir at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 14, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Blue and White MK Asaf Zamir at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 14, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir of the Blue and White party announced Friday he was resigning from the government, citing the passage of controversial legislation this week to restrict protests during the current coronavirus lockdown and asserting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more concerned by his legal woes than the fight against COVID-19.

Zamir said he met earlier with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the leader of Blue and White, to inform him of his decision.

“I can no longer sit in a government in whose leader I haven’t an iota of faith,” Zamir wrote in a lengthy Facebook post, in reference to Netanyahu.

Despite the resignation, Zamir said he would remain a member of the Blue and White party and would continue serving the public as a member of the Knesset.

Gantz said in a subsequent statement did not publicly air any grievances with Zamir, saying he “received with understanding and sorrow the resignation notice.”

“In recent weeks, we have had long and honest conversations that expressed the common feelings of many in the government, in the Knesset and in every home in Israel. We wanted unity but this is not the government we wished for,” Gantz added.

He also said he intended to now move forward with appointing a permanent state attorney to end “chaos” and safeguard “the rule of law,” putting him on a collision course with Likud.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz (R) with party member Asaf Zamir at a faction event in Ramat Gan on March 27, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Zamir in his resignation announcement said that the cabinet’s approval of regulations limiting protests that were subsequently ratified by the Knesset earlier this week were the “final straw” for him.

In response to Zamir’s resignation, opposition leader Yair Lapid said: “Asaf Zamir didn’t only resign, he laid out a serious indictment against all those who remain in the government a minute longer and continue to keep Netanyahu in power… You are not serving the State of Israel, you are serving Netanyahu. It’s time to resign.”

The new emergency measures to limit protests, which came into force on Thursday, effectively squelched the ongoing mass demonstrations against Netanyahu over his indictment on corruption charges and handling of the pandemic.

Thursday saw numerous smaller demonstrations held throughout the country. The new rules allow protesters to hold small gatherings no further than a kilometer from their homes.

While proponents of the restrictions say that they are intended to curb Israel’s coronavirus infections, organizers involved in the anti-Netanyahu protest movement of the past three months have vociferously opposed the new regulations, saying that they violate their freedom to protest.

Zamir noted that Blue and White had decided to join a unity government with Netanyahu after a third consecutive round of elections in March ended inconclusively — despite having campaigned heavily on replacing him. He said that despite outrage over the move by many Blue and White voters, he had supported ending the political gridlock while trying to influence the government from within.

“I no longer feel that way,” he said. ‎

Zamir, a former deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, accused Netanyahu of prioritizing his legal troubles over the fight against the coronavirus.

Israelis attend a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the nationwide lockdown, at HaBima square in Tel Aviv on October 01, 2020.(Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“After 4.5 months as a member of the government I can sadly state that the coronavirus crisis and its terrible consequences are at best second in the prime minister’s list of priorities,” Zamir said.

He charged that for weeks the government has dealt almost exclusively with the months-long protests against Netanyahu. He lamented that a budget for 2020 still has not been approved, and that no efforts were being made to prepare a budget for next year.

“Even in [Israel’s] most difficult hour, Netanyahu’s current political interest is what manages the country,” Zamir said. “There are no significant deliberations about truly urgent matters during cabinet meetings.”

“Personal and legal considerations are the top priority for Netanyahu,” he wrote.

Netanyahu’s Likud party in response accused Zamir of “playing petty politics” and lashed out at Blue and White.

“Blue and White needs to decide if they’re working for unity within the government that is fighting the coronavirus, or if they’re continuing to create chaos within the government,” Likud said in a statement.

Protestors block a road as they rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside his official residence in Jerusalem on September 30, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Zamir was not the first Blue and White minister to express interest in resigning this week, but he was the first one to follow through.

Science and Technology Minister Izhar Shay backtracked from plans to quit the government in protest over lockdown rules late Thursday.

Shay had been set to announce his resignation after a stormy cabinet meeting during which limits on protest attendance were approved. However after meeting with Gantz, the party put out a statement saying that Shay had decided to remain on board.

According to the Ynet news site, Shay was angered that the vote to approve tightening the lockdown was brought to the government before the so-called coronavirus cabinet had reached a decision.

Shay noted health officials argued such strict lockdown measures weren’t needed at this stage and cited a Finance Ministry forecast that the new restrictions could cost the economy over NIS 30 billion ($8.7 billion)

He also said the true purpose of the new restrictions was to stop the ongoing protests against Netanyahu, an issue the premier had pushed for.

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