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Likud’s Yariv Levin tapped as Knesset speaker in new government as Gantz resigns

Nomination still requires a parliamentary vote; Blue and White leader officially quits post, with move going into effect in 48 hours, after coalition sworn in

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin arrives at a Likud party meeting in Jerusalem on May 28, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin arrives at a Likud party meeting in Jerusalem on May 28, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud MK Yariv Levin will be the Knesset speaker in the new government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party announced Tuesday night, shortly after Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz submitted his resignation from the position.

Gantz officially resigned as interim speaker ahead of the swearing-in of the new government on Thursday, when he is set to become defense minister and alternate prime minister.

As a Knesset speaker’s resignation doesn’t take effect for 48 hours and the speaker can’t serve simultaneously as a minister, Gantz had to resign Tuesday.

Earlier reports had said Gantz was considering holding off on resigning over concerns the coalition deal between Blue and White and Likud could fall apart at the last moment and the swearing-in of the government could be delayed.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz in the Knesset on May 7, 2020 (YouTube screenshot/Knesset channel)

Levin, a hawkish critic of Israel’s judiciary and longtime confidant and coalition negotiator for Netanyahu, simultaneously resigned Tuesday from his post as tourism minister.

Levin’s nomination as Knesset speaker in the new coalition was confirmed by Likud on Tuesday night, following a party vote.

The move comes as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has worked to reshuffle his cabinet amid intense competition within Likud and other allied parties for key positions.

Earlier Tuesday, former Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein accepted the health portfolio offered to him by Netanyahu, vowing to steer Israel through the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. According to reports Science Minister Ofir Akunis was slated to move over to become regional cooperation Minister.

Levin’s nomination as Knessset speaker will still require a Knesset plenum vote to go into effect.

Gantz had been a placeholder Knesset speaker during Likud-Blue and White coalition talks. The aim was to retain leverage over Netanyahu by keeping alive the threat to pass legislation barring an indicted politician from forming a government. Netanyahu faces corruption charges in three cases, including bribery in one. His trial is scheduled to begin on May 24. He denies any wrongdoing.

The swearing-in will mark the first time Israel has had a functioning government in nearly 18 months, after three inconclusive elections failed to yield a coalition.

Edelstein held the position of Knesset speaker from 2013 until late March, when he defied a High Court of Justice order to put the post up for a vote, shuttered parliament and resigned. The post was then taken up by Gantz, with Netanyahu’s support, kicking off talks that resulted in a three-year coalition deal with a rotation of the premiership.

As part of the coalition agreement, Blue and White demanded Edelstein not be given the position of speaker again.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at a Likud party faction meeting in the Knesset, on April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Also on Tuesday, the Health Ministry’s director-general, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, resigned ahead of the appointment of Edelstein as health minister. The incumbent health minister, Yaakov Litzman, is set to receive the housing portfolio.

The move to nominate Edelstein health minister enraged the religious right-wing Yamina party, whose leader Naftali Bennett had been demanding the health portfolio for himself.

“Netanyahu slammed the door on our entry to the government,” a Yamina source said in a statement from the party. “He looked for the perfect way to humiliate Yamina and its voters and succeeded. Edelstein did not demand the health portfolio at all, Bennett did, and deserves it in light of his role in the coronavirus crisis.”

The source added: “This is a calculated move by Netanyahu to destroy the alliance with religious Zionism. Netanyahu’s betrayal of his biggest supporters signals the beginning of his end in politics.”

Following the Yamina statement, Netanyahu insisted that he wants the national-religious party in the next government but accused them of rejecting his “generous offer” to join.

“They requested four senior [ministerial] portfolios for six Knesset members,” he claimed in a video statement, saying this was “impossible.”

He also complained that Yamina, a member of his right-wing religious bloc, didn’t recommend he be tasked with forming the new government last week.

“I hope a change will occur. In any case, religious Zionism is our flesh and blood. Most religious Zionists voted for Likud, they’re represented by Likud and the Likud-led government will continue to look out for our shared interests and values,” Netanyahu said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Defense Minister and Yamina leader Naftali Bennett, right, during a meeting with the heads of right-wing parties in the Knesset on March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Also on Tuesday, Netanyahu reportedly offered the position of education minister to Likud MK Yuval Steinitz, further indicating that Yamina was bound for the opposition.

The current education minister is Rafi Peretz of Yamina, which is threatening to bolt to the opposition over disagreements with Netanyahu over the party’s role in the new coalition.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Channel 12 reported that Netanyahu had offered the education portfolio to Steinitz. Contradicting that report, the Kan public broadcaster said that Netanyahu was saving the Education Ministry for Yamina in case it decided to join the government.

Yamina has been a key part of Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc over the past two elections, though the premier and Bennett are widely seen to have a fraught relationship.

The two parties, which are ideologically close and have been political partners for many decades, have been trading accusations for the last few days.

Blue and White has been rumored to want the health portfolio too, even though the Likud-Blue and White coalition agreement signed on April 20 hands the ministry to Netanyahu’s bloc. Netanyahu has reportedly demanded three of Blue and White’s ministries in exchange, a demand Gantz has so far refused.

The breakdown of talks on Tuesday between Likud and Yamina came after Netanyahu asked Gantz to let him add additional ministries to the new government — bringing the total ministers set to be sworn in on Thursday to 36, the largest ever — in a bid to expand the offer to Yamina.

Yamina’s withdrawal eases Netanyahu’s difficulties within Likud, where a large number of senior MKs are competing for a smaller number of ministries than in the last government. By the terms of the Gantz-Netanyahu coalition agreement, half the cabinet posts of the new government must go to Gantz’s bloc of 19 MKs and half to Netanyahu’s bloc of 59.

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