Leaked recordings of Tuesday’s cabinet meeting reveal that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly defied the attorney general’s forceful warnings that appointing one of the premier’s Likud allies as justice minister was illegal and pushed through the appointment anyway.
“Don’t think that this vote will pass, it is an illegal vote!” roared Avichai Mandelblit at one point during the Zoom meeting, according to recordings broadcast by the Kan public broadcaster.
“The vote I am bringing is illegal? That’s absurd.” Netanyahu retorted, pushing ahead with the vote to install Likud’s Ofir Akunis as justice minister. The appointment was temporarily frozen hours later by the High Court of Justice.
Under a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, amended last year by Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, the position of justice minister is reserved for a candidate backed by Gantz’s Blue and White-led bloc.
“This whole thing sounds like unacceptable manipulation and I’m telling you we’ll get into a bad place,” the prime minister warned the government’s chief legal adviser when Mandelblit tried to warn him against holding the vote.
Gantz, who had failed in his efforts to secure the justice ministry for himself, told Netanyahu that he would not take part in the vote, calling it an “illegal action.”
“You can do whatever you want with your political power — you are 17 (cabinet members) and we are 10. It doesn’t matter what I want anyway,” a furious Gantz told ministers as the vote went ahead with the Likud-led right-wing bloc within the government outnumbering the Blue and White leader’s bloc of center-left parties.
“For me, this debate and this illegal move are over. I will not be a partner to illegal actions,” Gantz said. “I’ve had enough!”
Israel has been without a justice minister for nearly a month since Gantz’s term as interim justice minister ended at the end of the 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.
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 the three corruption cases brought against him by Mandelblit.
When Gantz once again sought to bring his appointment as justice minister to a vote at Tuesday’s meeting, Netanyahu initially 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 then 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.”
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.
With the virtual meeting descending into chaos, cabinet secretary Tzachi Braverman repeatedly threatened to mute ministers who were engaging in shouting matches.
Gantz finally managed to bring his own candidacy to a vote — but was defeated 17-10 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.”
Netanyahu instructed Tzachi Braverman, his cabinet secretary, to move ahead with the vote without giving Mandelblit a clear opportunity to voice his objections.
Blue and White’s Pnina Tamano-Shata told Braverman he must not call the vote. “You’re the cabinet secretary, not the Likud secretary,” she proclaimed over shouts from Likud’s Miri Regev.
Braverman replied that he was “subordinate to the prime minister, who’s running the meeting.”
In the commotion, Mandelblit tried to speak. “Mr. Prime Minister, you’re acting against the law,” he said.
Voting began, as Gantz attempted to interrupt.
“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.
The motion passed by 17-10.
After the vote, Mandeblit declared that it was void and that by law Akunis has not been appointed justice minister.
“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,” said Mandelblit.
Netanyahu responded by calling Mandelblit’s position “absurd,” “manipulative” and “impossible.”
“No one will understand your explanation as to why the vote on Gantz was valid but the vote on Akunis wasn’t,” Netanyahu said.
“Don’t worry,” Mandelblit answered, “the High Court will understand me.”
Following the cabinet meeting, High Court justices ruled that Akunis could not serve as justice minister until the court decides otherwise and said the position would remain vacant in the interim.
Netanyahu and Akunis have until Wednesday morning to justify why they believe the appointment should still go through, in violation of Likud’s coalition agreement with Blue and White, which was enshrined into a Basic Law. (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.)
The judges will then reconvene on Wednesday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. to discuss the arguments before reaching a final decision, the ruling stated.