Gantz derides Netanyahu’s bid to expand cabinet as ‘political bribery’

Gantz derides Netanyahu’s bid to expand cabinet as ‘political bribery’

Blue and White leader also urges PM to ‘be a man’ and drop legislation that would shield him from prosecution, calls on public to take to the streets in protest

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz speaks during a party faction meeting at the Knesset, on May 20, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz speaks during a party faction meeting at the Knesset, on May 20, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday of resorting to “political bribery” in his bid to expand the number of cabinet posts he can offer to woo potential coalition partners into the government.

“Can you believe we are going to talk today about increasing the number of ministers? This is simply another tool in the toolbox of political bribery. Its only aim is political gain. Anyone who accepts this is accepting a political bribe,” Gantz said at the opening of his party’s weekly faction meeting in the Knesset.

Later Monday, in the first legislative vote of the 21st Knesset, MKs are expected to approve the first reading of a bill to expand the cabinet from its current 21 members to an expected 26-28. The measure would cancel a 2014 law limiting the cabinet to 18 ministers that was temporarily amended in 2015 during coalition talks after that year’s election.

With time running out for him to finalize a deal to form a new government, Netanyahu is seeking to appeal to the six parties, including his own Likud, vying for ministerial posts. Increasing the number of ministers would give Netanyahu additional collateral to court the parties he needs to give him a majority, while also satisfying the demands of his own party members, who are likely to miss out on key positions doled out to coalition partners.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) listens to Transportation Minister Israel Katz during the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem on May 19, 2019. (Ariel Schalit / various sources / AFP)

Gantz called the measure “nothing but a part of the plan to protect Bibi,” referring to the prime minister’s attempts to protect himself from prosecution in three corruption cases against him.

“In a few weeks we will be debating the immunity bill that will turn the Israeli parliament into nothing less than a refuge city for criminals,” he added, slamming the Likud-backed legislation that would grant Netanyahu absolute immunity from prosecution .

Existing Israeli law already provides prosecutorial immunity to all sitting Knesset members, but Netanyahu has reportedly been pushing fresh legislation to ease the process and possibly prevent the Supreme Court from overturning it. The immunity bill has thus become a lightning rod for divisions in the ongoing coalition talks, as Netanyahu struggles to put together a new government after last month’s elections.

His efforts to pursue legislative immunity have drawn criticism from political opponents and legal scholars, who warn that such reforms would place the prime minister above the law and erode system of checks and balances.

“To Bibi I say — be a man. Stop this now. You have gone too far. We will fight this in parliament, on the street, in the squares, in schools, in the media in order to protect democracy for everyone. We will not let it happen,” Gantz vowed on Monday, urging Israelis to take to the streets to protest.

“We will not accept the undermining of the foundations of the state: democracy, the rule of law and the separation of powers. Instead of silent agreement, we and the general public raise a cry,” he said.

Gantz also turned to Likud members and members of other likely coalition parties, calling on them to “not give in to blackmail and fear.”

“MKs, your job is to show loyalty to the state, not just obedience to the party leader,” Gantz said.

In recent days, three Likud MKs — Gideon Sa’ar, Michal Shir and Sharren Haskel — publicly came out against Netanyahu’s “personal” immunity legislation, and former Likud MK Benny Begin savaged the prime minister for seeking to dodge prosecution.

Blue and White co-chairman Yair Lapid delivers a statement to the media at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 13, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Following Gantz, Blue and White number two, MK Yair Lapid, said that the coalition negotiations could also be considered bribery.

“What we see now is not coalition negotiations, it’s a bribery deal. Each party, each minister comes in and says they want something — budgets, ministries etc — and he says he will give it to them if they promise to protect him from prosecution. That is bribery; that is selling the state for your own benefit,” Lapid said.

On Sunday, Netanyahu complained that his potential coalition partners were unyielding in their demands and obstructing any prospect for significant progress in talks. “Unfortunately the parties are still at the top of the trees they have climbed,” the prime minister said at the opening of the cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.

“I hope that the way will soon be found to bring them down to the ground so that together we can establish a strong and stable government for the State of Israel, which will continue to lead the country to new heights,” he said.

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