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Ofir Akunis voted in for key post; PM then seeks more time

PM forces vote to make a Likud colleague justice minister; AG says it’s illegal

Unclear whether Israel has new justice minister after chaotic cabinet meeting; Netanyahu blocks Gantz from taking post, pushes nomination of ally, defies AG; High Court to convene

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) Defense Minister Benny Gantz (Yonatan Sindel, David Cohen/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) Defense Minister Benny Gantz (Yonatan Sindel, David Cohen/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday called a cabinet vote that appointed one of his Likud allies as justice minister, in what Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit immediately rejected as an illegal violation of the premier’s coalition agreement with Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, which is itself anchored in Israeli law.

Gantz had tried to block the vote, as had Mandelblit, who warned that it was being held in breach of the law, but it went ahead and the appointment of Likud’s Ofir Akunis was approved by the ministers.

At the end of the virtual meeting, marked by shouting and screaming, it was not immediately clear whether Israel had a new justice minister, though Mandelblit made clear his stance that the vote was invalid and Akunis was not the justice minister. Mandelblit, the government’s chief legal adviser, shouted at Netanyahu: “You did not let me speak until after holding a vote that I consider to be illegal. You did not uphold your own government decision. That’s my interpretation, that’s my stance. The vote was therefore illegal. Since the vote was illegal, so is the result. The consequence is clear: the decision was not approved…”

Netanyahu responded by calling Mandelblit’s position “absurd,” “manipulative” and “impossible.”

Netanyahu soon after the vote insisted that Akunis had been appointed justice minister “legally and by a majority of votes,” but nonetheless indicated that the appointment was not final: He asked Mandelblit to seek a 48-hour delay from the High Court of Justice on the matter, “in order to try to reach an agreement between the sides.”

The High Court of Justice was slated to convene on Tuesday evening to rule on the matter. Netanyahu was being represented by a private lawyer rather than Mandelblit.

Less than an hour before that session, Mandelblit issued his official stance to the court, saying Netanyahu and his backers in the cabinet had acted “knowingly” and “illegally” in pushing through Akunis’s appointment.

“There is no escape from issuing an order instructing the government to fill the position of justice minister without delay,” Mandelblit wrote.

Would-be prime minister Naftali Bennett, head of Yamina, responded to the chaos by warning, “The State of Israel is approaching an abyss of anarchy.”

Former state prosecutor Shai Nitzan called the episode “unprecedented,” “scandalous” and “a breach of the rule of law.” He said he did not consider that it constituted grounds for Netanyahu to be suspended as prime minister, however. Nitzan also stressed that it was untenable that Israel has been functioning without a justice minister, and has also had no state prosecutor for a year.

An unnamed senior judicial source told Channel 12 news the stand-off was “the worst constitutional crisis in Israeli history,” and said Netanyahu had carried out “an attack on democracy.”

The rules legislated last year for a “parity” government grant each of the country’s two “prime ministers,” the serving one and the “alternate” one, a veto over each other’s actions in the cabinet. They also grant each side complete control over appointing and firing of ministers within their “bloc” in the cabinet. These and other elements of the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition agreement are anchored in Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Law: The Government, which was amended last year to this effect.

Israel has been without a justice minister for nearly a month since Gantz’s term as interim justice minister ended at the end of beginning of April. The office has since been significantly constrained in its ability to operate, and various government panels, including the coronavirus cabinet, have also been brought to a standstill due to the vacancy.

The High Court convened on Sunday to hear a petition against the government over its failure to appoint a justice minister and gave ministers 48 hours to do so before it would be forced to intervene with its own ruling. Netanyahu notified the High Court that day that he would bring the issue of the justice minister before the cabinet but avoided making any additional commitments.

Likud Minister Ofir Akunis in Jerusalem on May 28, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As part of Gantz’s power-sharing coalition agreement with Netanyahu, the position of justice minister was reserved for members of Gantz’s Blue and White-led bloc. Avi Nissenkorn held the post until elections were called late last year, at which point he resigned to run on a separate party’s list. Gantz, who is also defense minister, subsequently took on the post in an interim capacity and over the past several weeks has called on Netanyahu to hold a vote to appoint him permanent justice minister.

The Likud leader has refused to hand Gantz the portfolio, due to what is widely viewed as part of an effort to maintain control of the justice system while he is on trial in three corruption cases.

When Gantz once again sought to bring his appointment as justice minister to a vote at Tuesday’s fiery cabinet meeting, held by videoconference, Netanyahu pushed back, telling the Blue and White minister that there was no need for an “artificial” permanent minister when there is only a caretaker government running the country and a new coalition will hopefully be formed in the near future.

Netanyahu instead recommended farming out the justice minister’s responsibilities to other cabinet members — a proposal the attorney general and High Court have flatly rejected.

The cabinet meeting quickly descended into a shouting match, with Gantz yelling, “I demand to bring my appointment as justice minister to a vote now. I am the candidate for the job. There is no other candidate. The prime minister is leading a hazing here. I demand a vote now and not in another 48 hours,” according to audio and transcripts from the online meeting that were leaked to Hebrew media.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at the 17th annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group, on February 24, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Netanyahu went on to claim that “there are questions” as to whether his coalition agreement with Gantz, which reserves the justice post for the Blue and White bloc, remains in effect after last month’s election.

Mandelblit rejected this assertion, saying the coalition deal stands until a new government is sworn in. He said the swearing-in of a new Knesset does not nullify the agreement.

“You are playing games, and it’s not clear to me why,” Gantz snapped at Netanyahu.

In response, the prime minister charged that Blue and White ministers had no right to lecture him when it had been holding up votes on purchasing millions of additional coronavirus vaccine doses. Gantz’s party initially blocked the deal, which has since been approved, claiming it was not given enough information regarding the necessity for so many more vaccines at such a high price.

The virtual meeting was particularly chaotic, with cabinet secretary Tzachi Braverman threatening to mute ministers Pnina Tamano-Shata and Miri Regev, who were engaging in a shouting match.

Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen (Likud) thought he had been placed on mute when he let slip a prediction that Netanyahu would simply throw out the name of a random lawmaker to vote on for the position of justice minister “in order to waste time.” The Likud lawmaker’s prediction ended up not being far off.

Gantz finally managed to bring his own candidacy to a vote — but was defeated by the Likud and its allies.

Netanyahu then shocked the ministers present by submitting Likud Regional Cooperation Minister Akunis as a candidate for the post. “I want to submit the candidacy of Miniter Ofir Akunis as our candidate,” he said. “I ask that we vote.”

Voting began, as Gantz attempted to interrupt.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the swearing-in ceremony for the 24th Knesset, April 6, 2021. (Knesset spokesperson)

“Just a moment, prime minister. That was not on today’s government agenda, and therefore you cannot raise it,” said Gantz, referring to the coalition agreement requirement that he and Netanyahu agree on the cabinet agenda, and that no other matters can be raised. “Today’s government agenda refers only to [a vote on] me [as justice minister], yes or no.”

“Of course you object,” said Netanyahu, and pressed ahead.

Blue and White ministers boycotted the vote, allowing the motion to pass.

Mandelblit shouted at Netanyahu, telling him that the vote was “illegal.”

“You passed an illegal measure against the opinion of the attorney general – an unprecedented move. Minister Akunis is not Israel’s justice minister,” Mandelblit declared.

Meanwhile, Likud lawmakers began issuing congratulatory messages to Akunis.

“We have a justice minister in Jerusalem! Congratulations to our friend Ofir Akunis and good luck!” Likud MK Avi Dichter tweeted.

Likud MK May Golan congratulated Netanyahu on “his steadfast position against the judicial dictatorship.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend the swearing-in ceremony of Israel’s Knesset (parliament) in Jerusalem, on April 6, 2021. (Alex Kolomoisky / POOL / AFP)

She tweeted that she hopes Akunis’s first decision as justice minister “will be to fire Mandelblit — the adviser for issues of the High Court and the left.”

Opponents of Netanyahu were livid.

Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen said the chaos at the cabinet meeting should serve as a reminder to any potential partners of the prime minister as he attempts to form a coalition.

“Anyone offered a rotation [of the premiership] by Likud and the prime minister should watch the conduct at the cabinet today closely, and ask himself how such a government would look and what the agreements [with Netanyahu] will be worth,” she tweeted.

New Hope party chief Gideon Sa’ar tweeted that “the saga… is further testament to the urgent need to replace the leadership.”

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said, “Anyone who thought even for a moment to make a deal with Netanyahu has just received a reminder that there is no chance he’ll live up to his end of the deal.

“The supreme disdain for the rule of law, for any agreement he’s made, the lies as a way of life — all of these exploded today surrounding the appointment of a justice minister. He just can’t not cheat.”

Critics have accused Netanyahu of intentionally seeking to weaken the justice system amid his criminal trial, as he hopes to appoint a minister who will be friendlier to his cause.

The lack of a justice minister has serious ramifications for the judicial system’s ability to function properly in some areas, including signing off on sentence reductions or extradition orders. It also affects the ability of the interim government to pass any new legislation, as government bills must first be okayed by the justice minister, who heads the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. In addition to the battle against COVID-19, this could even potentially affect urgent legislation regarding peace agreements.

Netanyahu, who is on trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, has railed against the judiciary, attorney general, and media, accusing them of attempting to remove him from power. He denies any wrongdoing.

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