'I can't control the PM's mouth, but we have veto power'

Israeli government minister: We don’t believe Netanyahu, or in Netanyahu

Meirav Cohen, head of social equality ministry, says it’s ‘very hard’ to serve under a PM her Blue and White party once vowed to shun, but ‘I hope we’ve chosen lesser of two evils’

New Minister of Social Equality Meirav Cohen at a ceremony marking her takeover from previous minister Gila Gamliel, held at the Ministry of Social Equality in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. (Flash90)
New Minister of Social Equality Meirav Cohen at a ceremony marking her takeover from previous minister Gila Gamliel, held at the Ministry of Social Equality in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. (Flash90)

In an interview aired Friday, Israel’s new Social Equality Minister Meirav Cohen of the Blue and White party said it was “very hard” for her to serve in a government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, adding: “We don’t believe him or in him.”

Cohen, a former social activist who joined Gantz’s party Israel Resilience in 2019 before it merged with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem to become Blue and White, said her party “can’t come out of this situation looking good” but said she hoped “we’ve chosen the lesser of two evils.”

Gantz, Lapid and Ya’alon ran together in three elections on the promise to offer an alternative to Netanyahu and a vow not to serve under him in a government so long as he faces criminal charges.

However, Gantz in late March walked back that pledge after three bruising campaigns failed to produce a government, and joined into a power-sharing government with Netanyahu last month.

Meirav Cohen at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 11, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gantz’s decision caused a sundering of Blue and White, with Yesh Atid-Telem splitting off to lead the opposition and Gantz’s former allies in those parties tearing into him as a betrayer of his voters.

Gantz, for his part, has said the alternative was a fourth national poll during a global pandemic — with his party believed poised to lose ground to Netanyahu.

“It’s very hard for me. Very hard for me,” Cohen told Channel 12 news. “I didn’t want it to be like this. To go into a unity government with a man who, we don’t believe him or in him, who has three criminal indictments — or [to go for] the other option of a fourth election straight, during a crazy economic, social and health crisis.”

She said that “Both options were terrible. I truly hope we’ve chosen the lesser of two evils.” But she admitted that “we can’t come out of this situation looking good. It’s a tough situation.”

Blue and White’s Merav Cohen speaks during a party event at Cinema City in Jerusalem, on March 28, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Blue and White entered the government promising to rein in attacks on the justice system by Netanyahu’s Likud and vowing to uphold democratic institutions. But when the prime minister, on the day of the opening of his criminal trial, made a speech in which he railed against police and prosecutors with unprecedented ferocity, the party issued only muted statements on the need to respect the courts and the rule of law.

Cohen, at 36 the youngest minister in the government, was asked about that Netanyahu speech, which came shortly after the first meeting of the new cabinet of which she is a member.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is surrounded by Likud lawmakers as he gives a press statement ahead of the start of his trial at the Jerusalem District Court, May 24, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I don’t think it adds to his respectability” to claim victimhood and assert the existence of vast conspiracies, Cohen said. “It would be best for him to come forward and simply deal with the facts, fight for his innocence, and I truly wish for him to be exonerated.”

“I can’t control and will not control the mouths of Benjamin Netanyahu, nor Miri Regev, nor [David] Amsalem, nor [Amir] Ohana,” she said, checking off Likud ministers with a record of incendiary comments. “I can’t control it. But we have a veto in this government. And we will use this veto to serve as a fortified wall and to protect the rule of law.”

Asked about serving in Israel’s largest-ever government, with 34 ministers and eight deputy ministers (and the option to rise further to 36 and 16, respectively), Cohen said: “I don’t like it at all. I don’t feel comfortable with it at all. Certainly when I am dealing day and night with people who are truly impoverished.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate PM and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Prior to being elected to the Knesset, Cohen was known for her social activism, particularly in Jerusalem, on employment, housing and other socioeconomic issues. She served as a member of the capital’s municipal council in 2011-2013.

The Social Equality Ministry deals chiefly with improving the condition of elderly citizens, advancing women’s rights and promoting minorities.

Cohen said the previous government had “failed in treating the elderly” during the coronavirus crisis. She said that upon entering the ministry, she found “a system that’s not organized, not orderly, not during normal times and certainly not during times of crisis.”

At the height of the pandemic the coronavirus spread quickly in many nursing homes throughout the country, and a high percentage of fatalities came from elder care facilities. Additionally, the quarantines and social distancing measures enacted to curb the spread of the pandemic has left many aging Israelis isolated and lonely.

Asked how she planned to improve her office’s work, she said: “We’ve at least mapped out the problems, and it’s clear what needs to be done. I really hope we don’t fail in the execution.” Channel 12 showed Cohen meeting with elderly Israelis to hear about their difficulties throughout the crisis firsthand.

Cohen gave birth to her third child a few weeks ago, days after being appointed minister. Despite being at home with her newborn much of the time, she continues to hold meetings and direct the ministry’s work from home.

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