By the ministers, for the ministers, of the ministers: 6 things for May 14
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By the ministers, for the ministers, of the ministers: 6 things for May 14

A new government is finally set to be sworn in, but not before some last-minute horse-trading and seat-grabbing to make sure everyone knows what’s really important

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on March 26, 2020. (Knesset)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on March 26, 2020. (Knesset)

1. Musical ministries: After almost 18 months of waiting, Israel is about to get an actual government and excitement, is, well there’s not a whole lot of it.

  • Sure, Yedioth Ahronoth splashes the new government on its front page, under a headline decrying “1 million unemployed, 34 ministers,” who will be sworn in “under the shadow of an economic epidemic.” The package is gussied up with a cartoonishly inaccurate graph meant to illustrate Israel’s sky-high unemployment rate.
  • Thirty-four ministers? I thought it was agreed to be 32. Actually nobody is even sure how many ministers there will be, other than a lot. According to Channel 13, it will be “more than 30,” and Yedioth admits it’s not even totally sure: “Until the actual swearing-in, it won’t be clear if Netanyahu will manage to swear in 16 ministers, as is written in the coalition agreement, or 18, which the deal allows him to do in another six months. In that case, Gantz will also be able to appoint 18 ministers, but he has said he will only appoint 16.”
  • According to Walla news, as of Thursday morning, Gantz had not even begun to discuss doling out ministries within his camp, but even with just 30 ministers, it will be “the largest in the last decade.”
  • All through the day Thursday, news reports fill the airwaves of this or that minister getting tapped for this or that position, which is about as exciting as it sounds. There’s a reason musical chairs is not a spectator sport.
  • “59 people have to compete for 38 roles,” Likud MK Miki Zohar whines to Ynet, as if anybody should feel bad for these political schnorrers.
  • The date of May 14 for the swearing-in also not lost on Walla, though rather than highlighting the 72nd anniversary of Israel’s birth, it notes that it’s the five-year anniversary of the last time a government was sworn in.
  • At least one paper doesn’t forget: The Tehran Times, which adorns its front page with a cartoon of a Hitlerish David Ben-Gurion giving a Nazi salute to mark the day.

2. Time to make up the ministries: The cabinet shuffle gets an added oomph Thursday morning with Jewish Home’s Rafi Peretz splitting away from the Yamina alliance in order to join the government, according to several Hebrew media reports.

  • Peretz’s prize for jumping ship: The ministry of Jerusalem affairs and national projects, or maybe Settlement Affairs, depending on which reports you believe. Never heard of those ministries? It’s because they didn’t exist yesterday, just like the Community Empowerment and Advancement Ministry created for Orly Levy-Abekasis.
  • Channel 13’s Nadav Eyal writes that Netanyahu has been known for turning to  hucksterism when it comes to selling ministries, telling of a time he tried to get someone to take the energy portfolio by promising that there were secret oil reserves in the Golan Heights that would change the country and make the minister the most important one in town. “It’s almost certain that Bibi told Rabbi Rafi that he would save Jerusalem,” he tweets.
  • Reacting to Peretz leaving, fellow Yamina-ite Bezalel Smotrich tweets a picture of a Mitsubishi keyfob, which the press quickly identifies as a reference to a former Likud MK backing the Oslo Accords and getting a ministry — and a government Mitsubishi — an affair known by some wonks as “the Mitsubishi deal.”
  • There’s no worry of Peretz getting a Mitsubishi out of the deal. Ministers today get Audis.
  • In the national-religious Srugim website, columnist Aryeh Yoeli writes that Peretz was a lame duck anyway, after selling out extremist buddy Itamar Ben Gvir to join Yamina, and having only a piddly deputy post to look forward to if Yamina entered the government and even less influence in the opposition: “Getting the Jerusalem ministry, with responsibility for National Service and national religious seed communities, subjects that are acutely important to his public, is a way to bow out respectfully.”

3. Taking it from all sides: Not even Israel Hayom is too excited about the new government, running a front page headline bemoaning Benjamin Netanyahu’s “unity at the expense of the bloc,” referring to Yamina, formerly of the premier’s right-wing-religious bloc, going to the opposition.

  • This is not the first time the paper has shown itself willing to criticize Netanyahu when he spurns the right wing, but it’s still fairly rare for it to paint the Likud leader in a less than shining light.
  • “The Likud belly is in pain,” columnist Mati Tuchfeld writes. “The new government will indeed extend sovereignty to West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley, but it seems that’s the only right-wing thing it will do.”
  • The paper also expresses abject horror at the prospect of Miri Regev being named foreign minister during the government’s second half: “The whole idea is ridiculous. Miri Regev is the least qualified person for such a stately position,” the paper quotes one Likud lawmaker saying.
  • In Haaretz, analyst Amos Harel offers rare praise for Yamina leader Naftali Bennett, who was apparently refused the role, writing that he was “the only minister who showed genuine energy and initiative in addressing the coronavirus crisis.”
  • He also writes that the government’s supposed raison d’etre, fighting the coronavirus, is belied by the political horsetrading and doling out of ministry positions, which seem aimed more at making friends happy than actually tackling the health crisis.
  • “It’s not just that 36 ministerial positions and several new deputy minister positions were approved at a time of crushing unemployment. It’s the fact that the position of health minister was ultimately filled as something of an afterthought, as though it was the most trivial of coalition bargaining chips,” he writes.
  • The left-center flank of the government is also taking some heat for not keeping its promises. Army Radio reports that though Labor leader Amir Peretz promised he would not join a government without an Arab minister, it looks like even with 30-plus positions being given out, not a single one will go to a non-Jew. Prof. Alean Al-Krenawi, who was supposed to be “their” minister, tells Army Radio: “I definitely think it will happen. It’s not over until it’s over. You can’t just ignore 21 percent of the population.”

4. Confidence game: Channel 12’s Daphna Liel writes that Netanyahu has a history of shedding those who work with him and turning them into enemies, and of not keeping his promises of political favors.

  • “Why does he do this? Because he can. He’s coming into this round very strong after dismantling his main opposition and pretty much any pockets of resistance in Likud. He will advance only those he trusts into positions they actually want — Amir Ohana, Yariv Levin and Miri Regev — and leave the rest with jobs where they will have a hard time advancing.”
  • Looking at the incoming coalition as a whole, ToI editor David Horovitz writes that it is Gantz who got played.
  • “The only question now is why Gantz, having found justification in the COVID-19 crisis for reversing his solemn commitment to voters, thinks Netanyahu can be relied upon to honor his solemn commitment to hand over the premiership on November 14, 2021. Gantz, after all, has no political leverage to exert — just a signed piece of paper no court will enforce, and some swiftly amended laws that can as swiftly be reverted,” he writes.
  • Haaretz’s lead editorial writes that the main concern for the government won’t be getting work done, but watching its back for knives: “That’s how it is when unity is based on a mutual lack of trust and respect…. Fear of turning one’s back on Netanyahu for even one moment will be present in this government for its entire term. Those in Kahol Lavan will have to learn to live with that ongoing concern.”

5. Yellow lights: The visit of Mike Pompeo also gets some headlines, and some in the press read between the lines of his few comments to conclude that he in fact was in Israel to tell Netanyahu to hold his horses on annexation.

  • Pompeo tells Israel Hayom, “We spoke not only about the issue of annexation but also about many other topics that are connected to it — how to deal with all the elements involved in the matter, and how it would be possible to ensure the move is done properly in order to bring about an outcome in accordance with the vision of peace.”
  • The comment is seen by some as a veiled warning to Israel to proceed with caution before actually annexing.
  • “Pompeo urges Israeli caution in West Bank moves,” reads one Reuters headline (which is later changed.)
  • “To the extent that in the coalition agreement, Gantz waived his veto right over annexation, Pompeo is handing it back to him,” expert Ofer Zalzberg tells The New York Times. “Pompeo is giving him leverage over it, influence over it.”
  • Nonetheless, a headline in Israel National News claims that the Americans said “there will be no annexation in July.” The Americans did not actually say that, but the news site teases that claim out of a quote from an unnamed official who says that “they’ve got a coalition government that has various strands. And I think it’s going to take them a while to come together with what they’re going to do.”
  • In Israel Hayom, columnist Avraham Ben Zvi writes that Pompeo gave Israel a green light to knock Iranian in Syria stiff, but only a yellow light on annexation: “From the perspective of the White House, postponing annexation from early summer to the end of autumn 2020 comes with another considerable advantage. Israeli implementation with declared presidential support, on the eve of the US election on November 3, could be optimal from Trump’s point of view in terms of spurring his evangelical base to go out and vote. The vast majority of this constituency unreservedly supports this aspect of Trump’s deal of the century, as does a segment of American Jewry.”

6. The annexation annex: But in Haaretz, Chemi Shalev writes that if Pompeo was trying to signal to Israel to slow down, he should have used a megaphone, not a subtle hint:

  • “Even if one assumes that Pompeo wasn’t actually pushing Netanyahu to annex – that could come later, if Donald Trump gets desperate for election-eve evangelical fervor – the Secretary of State certainly wasn’t giving the Israeli public any reason to suspect the White House is standing in the way. Compared to how all of his predecessors in the pre-Trump era would have reacted, Pompeo’s laissez-faire approach was widely interpreted as a virtual green light,” he writes.
  • Writing for Time magazine, former negotiator Aaron David Miller envisions a middle ground where Netanyahu annexes but still tries to keep everybody relatively copacetic: “True to his risk-averse nature, Netanyahu may look for a middle ground. If he moves to apply sovereignty he’ll steer clear of the Jordan Valley (and the vast majority of the 130 settlements in the West Bank)—focusing instead on the some of the large settlement blocs that Israel would have been expected to retain anyway if there were negotiations with the Palestinians. The move will upset his right wing but not enough to lose their support; box in Benny Gantz who cannot oppose it; and keep his relations with Arabs who don’t want to alienate the Trump Administration from completely cratering; and anger the Palestinians ensuring they won’t negotiate as Netanyahu hopes but likely preempt more drastic actions such as cancelling the Oslo Accords or dismantling the Palestinian Authority.”
  • Saudi-based Arab News’s Ray Haninia says the Palestinians and Arab world should not be placated at all, and urges the Gulf to use the coronavirus crisis and its deep pockets to force the US’s hand: “Political pressure from the Arab and Muslim worlds would encourage US President Donald Trump to stop Israel from moving forward with annexation, and might even force Tel Aviv to recognize a Palestinian state.”
  • In Yedioth, former MI chief Amos Gilad writes that Israel would be crazy to start annexing and risk its relationship with Jordan: “Such a move would undermine the Jordanian government in the eyes of its population, opening the door for Iran and their proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, to finally get their foot into the strategic area. Why would Israel risk its national security with such brash and irrational political decisions?”
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