In reshuffle, PM names Hanegbi agriculture minister, taps Akunis for welfare

Appointees announced after Bitan and Cohen withdraw from consideration following delays, as top court questions the transition government’s authority to fill cabinet posts

Tzipi Hotovely (L) and Tzachi Hanegbi (R) at a Foreign Affairs and Security Committee meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on July 21, 2015 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Tzipi Hotovely (L) and Tzachi Hanegbi (R) at a Foreign Affairs and Security Committee meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on July 21, 2015 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday announced a series of ministerial nominations as part of a cabinet reshuffle after being forced to give up his own cabinet posts due to corruption charges against him.

The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that he was nominating Tzachi Hanegbi as agriculture minister, and that Hanegbi would hold that portfolio in addition to heading up the Regional Cooperation Ministry.

Ofir Akunis was named to the position of welfare minister and will also continue in his current role of science and technology minister.

In addition, the prime minister confirmed that Likud lawmaker Tzipi Hotovely was still to be named Diaspora affairs minister, noting that she would not be replaced as deputy foreign minister.

Hotovely held the deputy post while Netanyahu served as foreign minister in addition to multiple other portfolios, including the role of prime minister. Last February, Netanyahu named Israel Katz acting foreign minister in response to a petition filed at the High Court of Justice over the number of ministerial portfolios the premier was holding.

Shas lawmaker Meshulam Nahari will be appointed deputy welfare minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Science Minister Ofir Akunis (L) at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting on December 22, 2019, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

Two lawmakers had already withdrawn their names from consideration after their appointments were indefinitely delayed following a High Court of Justice ruling questioning the authority of the transitional government to make cabinet appointments.

Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen from the Shas party withdrew his agreement to be nominated as housing minister after approval of his appointment was indefinitely delayed.

Among the posts Netanyahu had to give up was the Welfare Ministry, but that’s a portfolio the ultra-Orthodox Shas is apparently reluctant to hold because of the minister’s responsibility of approving work permits for Shabbat, so instead Netanyahu decided to give Cohen housing.

Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen attends a Shas party campaign event in Jerusalem on July 22, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

In its ruling earlier this month, the High Court said that as a transition government does not have backing from the Knesset, it “must refrain from making changes to the makeup [of the cabinet] if they are not required to ensure its proper functioning.”

The judges said there was a need to differentiate between cases where a minister quit or died and those that would not result in a “governing vacuum,” such as a desire to shuffle the cabinet for political reasons.

A vote on the appointments was subsequently delayed, after having already reportedly been put off because of corruption suspicions against David Bitan, who had been named agriculture minister.

Bitan, whom police have recommended be indicted on multiple corruption charges including bribery, fraud and money laundering, announced last week he was withdrawing from his nomination, citing delays “under various pretexts.”

Likud MK David Bitan at the Knesset on January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussil/Flash90)

The ruling came in response to a petition against the government’s approval of Naftali Bennett as defense minister in November, an appointment the High Court upheld.

Netanyahu, who has held various ancillary ministry posts during his time as prime minister, was forced to give up the Health, Welfare and Diaspora Affairs portfolios due to the charges against him. The charges do not require he step down as prime minister.

The appointment of Yaakov Litzman as health minister was approved before the court ruling.

Under Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, a transition government can appoint a lawmaker to a ministerial post without needing the approval of the full Knesset.

Israel has had a transition government since December 2018, when the Knesset voted to dissolve and go to early elections. A third round of elections will be held March 2, after the previous two failed to result in a government, a first in Israeli history.

Netanyahu has made numerous ministerial appointments while heading a transition government, including tapping Bennett as defense minister, Katz as foreign minister and Amir Ohana as justice minister.

Netanyahu’s cabinet currently includes two ministers who police recommended stand trial for corruption: Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of Shas and Litzman, the head of United Torah Judaism. Likud MK Haim Katz stepped down as welfare minister in August after the attorney general announced corruption charges against him.

Netanyahu, in November, became the first sitting prime minister with charges against him when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced he would indict the prime minister for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu denies the allegations.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri (left), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at the weekly cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office, Jerusalem, December 20, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Mandelblit ruled that Netanyahu does not have to resign as prime minister, as he currently heads a caretaker government so the action would have “no practical relevance.” But he said the premier did have to relinquish his other posts.

Netanyahu had promised the High Court of Justice that he would quit all positions except prime minister by the end of 2019.

Due to a now-defunct, but not-yet-replaced coalition agreement from the 20th Knesset, one portfolio was promised to a Shas lawmaker while the other two were reserved for Likud MKs.

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