Gesher’s Levy-Abekasis joins coalition, to head newly created ministry

Politician who broke ranks with dovish allies will lead Community Empowerment and Advancement Ministry, also pledges to back Netanyahu on West Bank annexation

Labour-Gesher party co-chairwoman Orly Levy-Abekasis at a faction meeting at the Knesset on November 11, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90 )
Labour-Gesher party co-chairwoman Orly Levy-Abekasis at a faction meeting at the Knesset on November 11, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90 )

Gesher MK Orly Levy-Abekasis signed a coalition deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party early Thursday, which will see her head the newly created Community Empowerment and Advancement Ministry.

The appointment was announced as Netanyahu works to shore up his cabinet and fill other posts hours ahead of the government’s planned swearing in Thursday night. Among other moves, Netanyahu also appointed former welfare minister Haim Katz to head a Knesset committee that he previously ran during a period when he was accused of graft.

Levy-Abekasis’s ministry, seemingly invented to bring her into the government, will assume some of the responsibilities that previously fell under the umbrella of the Public Security Ministry, including state efforts to combat alcohol and drug abuse, cyber-crime against children, and urban violence. She will also oversee projects to empower Israel’s Arab community.

Levy-Abekasis — a hawkish former Yisrael Beytenu lawmaker who later partnered with the dovish Labor and Meretz parties on a bread-and-butter platform in this year’s elections before defecting to Netanyahu’s right-wing camp in mid-April — also pledged in the coalition deal to back the prime minister’s West Bank annexation steps.

Levy-Abekasis “commits to support any position by the prime minister, coordinated with the United States, which directly or indirectly relates to the issue of extending sovereignty,” the document stipulates, referring to plans to annex parts of the West Bank as early as this summer, as part of the Trump administration’s peace plan.

Levy-Abekasis’ about-face last month to join the right was widely believed to have come after she cut a deal with Likud to be appointed minister, which she has denied. A hawk on the Palestinians, she found common ground with the left on social and welfare issues, but broke ranks after the center-left appeared poised to form a minority government backed on the outside by the predominantly Arab Joint List.

Her former partner, Labor leader Amir Peretz, is also slated to join the new Likud-Blue and White-led government, though he has yet to sign an official agreement with Benny Gantz.

Labor Party leader Amir Peretz (R) and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz at a press conference in Tel Aviv on March 12, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Under the coalition deal signed last month between Likud and Blue and White, the new government will initially have at least 32 ministers — divided equally between the Netanyahu- and Gantz-led blocs — before swelling to 36 in six months in what would be the largest government in Israel’s history.

Netanyahu late Wednesday also signed coalition agreements with his long-time ultra-Orthodox allies, United Torah Judaism and Shas, and continued to distribute portfolios to his Likud members ahead of Thursday’s swearing-in of the new government after 18 months of political deadlock and three consecutive elections.

Blue and White has yet to distribute its share of ministerial offices as part of the unity deal. Gantz will take up the defense post for 18 months, while Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi will initially be foreign minister in the new government, before moving to defense.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with then-Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, at the Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset, April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Thus far, Likud’s Yuli Edelstein has been appointed health minister; Israel Katz will get the treasury; Ofir Akunis was tapped as regional affairs minister; Miri Regev will be transportation minister and will reportedly become foreign ministand er in 18 months when Blue and White leader Gantz takes over as prime minister in the rotation agreement between the two parties. Likud’s Yariv Levin has been nominated Knesset speaker.

Former Likud minister Haim Katz, who is under criminal indictment and cannot be appointed a minister, will head up the Knesset’s Labor and Welfare Committee. That post was held by Katz from 2005 to 2006 and again from 2009 to 2013, during which time he allegedly perpetrated the fraud and breach of trust for which he will stand trial.

MK Haim Katz (C) talking to MKs Ahmed Tibi (L) and Ofer Kassif during a hearing of the Knesset House Committee on Katz’s request for parliamentary immunity from corruption charges, February 4, 2020. (Adina Velman/Knesset)

As part of his deal with Shas, leader Aryeh Deri will remain interior minister. Deri also announced Wednesday that Rabbi Yaakov Avitan, an Ashkelon city council member for Shas who is not a Knesset lawmaker, will be tapped as religious affairs minister. United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman will become housing minister.

Top Likud members are still gunning for the six remaining portfolios held by Netanyahu: energy; intelligence; Jerusalem affairs; the Negev, Galilee and periphery; public security; and environmental protection.

The Public Security Ministry, which is responsible for overseeing police, is now expected to go to outgoing Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a close ally of the premier.

Minister of Justice Amir Ohana speaks at the 17th annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ media group, February 24, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

According to a Channel 12 report Monday, Netanyahu wants the new government to begin with 36 ministers, which could help him deal with pressure for ministerial positions within Likud as well as possibly paving the way for the right-wing Yamina to join.

A Channel 13 report said Netanyahu met Wednesday evening with Yamina’s Rafi Peretz, the outgoing education minister, in a last-ditch attempt to convince him to enter the new government, even without the rest of the party.

The party leaders, including outgoing Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, have said they’ll join the opposition.

Blue and White, meanwhile, inked a deal with Derech Eretz, a small right-wing faction.

Derech Eretz comprises just two MKs — Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser — who were part of Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem party in the previous iteration of Blue and White and broke off to join Gantz when the alliance split up due to Gantz’s decision to enter into a coalition with Netanyahu.

Hendel was reportedly slated to become communications minister while Hauser could chair the powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Blue and White is also expected to sign an agreement with Labor MKs Peretz and Itzik Shmuli, which will see them assigned the Economy Ministry and Welfare Ministry, respectively.

Knesset members Yoaz Hendel (L) and Zvi Hauser (R) at the Knesset ahead of the opening session of the new government, on April 29, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Netanyahu informed President Reuven Rivlin and Gantz, who is currently Knesset speaker, on Wednesday that he is able to form a government.

The government will be sworn in on Thursday night, 10 days before Netanyahu goes on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The prime minister denies any wrongdoing.

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