Cabinet meeting on vaccine contracts canceled as Likud, Blue and White squabble

Gantz calls off meeting, citing Netanyahu’s ‘refusal’ to approve permanent justice minister; Likud and Health Ministry: If funds not approved, manufacturers may junk contracts

Workers hang a large election campaign poster for Benny Gantz's Blue and White party, showing Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem on March 11, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Workers hang a large election campaign poster for Benny Gantz's Blue and White party, showing Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem on March 11, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The first cabinet meeting scheduled since last week’s inconclusive general elections was canceled Sunday, amid fresh squabbling between the Likud and Blue and White parties over the appointment of a permanent justice minister.

The March 23 elections, the fourth in two years, were called after the Likud-Blue and White unity government collapsed in December over the failure to approve a state budget.

Before Monday’s weekly cabinet meeting was canceled, Finance Minister Israel Katz of Likud said he would seek approval for a NIS 7 billion ($2.1 billion) spending package on coronavirus vaccines for next year and other “urgent” health needs.

“The investment in vaccines saves lives and allows for setting the economy in motion,” he wrote on Facebook. “Israel needs to continue to be the leading country in the world on the issue of vaccines and political disagreements must not prevent the continued treatment of urgent health and economic issues.”

Blue and White later released a statement saying the meeting would not be held, citing the “refusal” of Netanyahu and his Likud-led bloc to approve a permanent justice minister, “which will bring harm to the rule of law and democracy.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who heads Blue and White, has been serving as interim justice minister since Avi Nissenkorn resigned from the post earlier this year. With his term set to expire at the start of April, Gantz has been demanding a permanent appointment.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein (C) attend a ceremony for the arrival of a plane carrying a shipment of Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccines, at Ben Gurion Airport, January 10, 2021. (Motti Millrod/Pool/AFP)

“For appointments and jobs, Gantz is preventing the signing of contracts for millions of vaccines that are needed,” Likud said in a statement, claiming vaccine manufacturers could junk the deals if they are not immediately signed.

The party accused Gantz of “acting irresponsibly, endangering the wellbeing and health of all Israeli citizens.”

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein of Likud also lashed out at Gantz, claiming the failure to approve the spending package would cause “enormous damage.”

“Gantz will set us back by months. The reason isn’t even important. The health of us all is not a side in a political struggle,” Edelstein wrote on Facebook.

The director-general of the Health Ministry warned Israel’s ability to acquire vaccines could be harmed for years by the cancellation of the meeting.

“I don’t get into political matters, but from a medical-professional aspect as director-general of the Health Ministry, this delay will be very tough for us,” Chezy Levy told Channel 12 news.

Israel’s world-leading vaccination drive has seen over half of its population receive the shots. It’s not clear, however, how long the shots remain effective and health officials are looking ahead to when a second inoculation drive may be needed to keep the population immunized against COVID-19.

The spat between Likud and Blue and White came days after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit sent Netanyahu a letter urging him to allow the appointment of a permanent justice minister.

“A situation in which the Justice Ministry is left without a permanent minister will cause severe damage to the ministry’s work and the functioning of the government,” Mandelblit wrote to Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges.

Under the coalition deal between Netanyahu and Gantz — which remains in effect until a new government is sworn in following the election — the Justice Ministry is under the purview of Gantz’s bloc of the government. He can select whom he wishes to head the portfolio, and Netanyahu has no say in the matter. However, Netanyahu can block a cabinet vote on such an appointment, which he has apparently been doing for months now.

Mandelblit in his letter noted that there are several other government offices that are being headed by interim ministers since the coalition broke down late last year. These include the Communications Ministry, Water and Higher Education Ministry, the Social Equality Ministry, the Welfare Ministry and the Science and Technology Ministry. These were all offices headed by ministers from the Blue and White-led bloc, which faced a flood of resignations after elections were called.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at an event at Bar Ilan University, March 4, 2020. (Flash90)

Netanyahu and Gantz have fought over control of the dysfunctional power-sharing government since it was formed last May, but their struggles have become even more pronounced since their agreement collapsed in December, leading to last week’s election.

On Thursday the High Court of Justice ruled that Netanyahu must abide by conflict of interest rules laid out by Mandelblit and cannot intervene in the appointment of senior law enforcement and justice officials.

Under Mandelblit’s arrangement, Netanyahu cannot be involved in any matters that affect witnesses or other defendants in his graft trial, or in legislation that would impact the legal proceedings against him.

Netanyahu’s lawyers have argued that the attorney general does not have the authority to enforce the conflict of interest arrangement without the consent of the prime minister.

Netanyahu in August rejected an earlier draft of the conflict of interest framework proposed by Mandelblit, claiming that the attorney general himself was in a conflict of interest, since he was the one who made the decision late last year to indict the prime minister.

Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in three cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He has denied wrongdoing and claimed that the charges are an effort by political rivals, the media, law enforcement, and prosecutors to remove him from office.

The evidentiary stage of the trial is set to start on April 5, having been postponed until after the elections.

Last week’s election ended in deadlock, with neither Netanyahu and his allies, nor his rivals, emerging with a clear path to forming a government.

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