Likud source: Regev mooted as education minister in unity government

Draft of potential portfolios also shows Edelstein demoted to junior cabinet post; amid negotiations, Netanyahu calls reports ‘total fake news’

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Culture Minister Miri Regev with supporters of the Likud party soon after the publication of TV exit polls in the Israeli general elections, at party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on September 17, 2019. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)
Illustrative: A meeting of the heads of the bloc of parties supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), January 14, 2020. (Courtesy)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to his right-wing and religious political allies on Sunday night to reassure them about coalition talks with Blue and White, calling reports on the distribution of cabinet portfolios, many of them to the centrist party, “total fake news.”

Meanwhile, a Likud source told The Times of Israel that the current draft of the deal being discussed by Likud and Blue and White negotiators sees parity between the religious-right and center-left blocs, with several concessions being made on both sides.

According to that draft, controversial Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev will be moved from the position to the highly-sought-after Education Ministry. At the same time, former Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein would be demoted to a junior ministerial post, while two Likud ministers would be sent off to the US and Russia as ambassadors.

Netanyahu’s Likud party said in a statement that the prime minister “made it clear that the preservation of the national camp is more import than ever” during negotiations with Blue and White on the formation of a national unity government.

“The prime minister has also made it clear to the faction leaders that many media publications on the negotiations, including division of duties, were total fake news,” the statement added.

A flurry of reports on Sunday suggested that the Likud, Yamina, United Torah Judaism and Shas parties, which are negotiating in coalition talks with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White as a single bloc, are going to get at least 15 ministries in total in the new government.

According to the reports, the imminent deal would also see the 15-member Blue and White — possibly joined by the four members of Labor and Gesher and by Telem MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, formerly of Blue and White — receive a similar number of cabinet portfolios, meaning almost every MK in Gantz’s party will become a minister.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, on October 27, 2019. (Elad Malka)

Netanyahu and Gantz held an all-night meeting into Sunday morning on the terms of a unity government, which they were hoping to finalize later Sunday. A joint statement from the two said they reached “understandings and significant progress” during the talks at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, without elaborating. Further talks would be held later Sunday with the aim of reaching a signed deal, according to the statement.

The unity talks came after Gantz in a shock move was elected Knesset speaker Thursday, setting the stage for a coalition with Netanyahu and leading to the splintering of the Blue and White alliance, which had campaigned during the three elections over the past year on ousting Netanyahu due to his indictment on graft charges.

The equal or near-equal share between the two blocs comes despite Netanyahu’s numbering 58 lawmakers, many of whom will be disappointed and some of whom — like Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich — have expressed criticism of the emerging government.

A Likud source told The Times of Israel that in the current draft of the government being discussed, the ministries to be handed to Netanyahu’s bloc are: finance, public security, transportation, education, health, interior, Negev and Galilee, energy, environmental protection, religious affairs, intelligence, regional cooperation, tourism, Jerusalem and heritage, immigration and absorption, social equality and — for at least the next 18 months — the premiership.

The draft, while not including the Labor party and not being a final allocation of ministries, gives Blue and White the following ministries: defense, foreign, justice, communications, economy, agriculture, labor and welfare, culture and sport, science and technology, Diaspora, social equality and regional affairs, the Likud source said.

According to the emerging deal, Gantz is set to partner with Netanyahu in a coalition and serve initially as defense minister before taking over as prime minister in September 2021, though many political analysts doubt that such a rotation will actually take place. Gabi Ashkenazi, Gantz’s deputy, is set to be foreign minister and then take over the Defense Ministry if Gantz becomes prime minister.

Based on the Likud source, here is the emerging allocation of ministries being discussed by both sides:

Finance — Israel Katz, Likud
Public Security — Naftali Bennett, Yamina
Energy — Nir Barkat, Likud
Tourism — Gila Gamliel, Likud
Transportation — Yariv Levin, Likud
Intelligence — Tzachi Hanegbi, Likud
Education — Miri Regev, Likud
Negev and the Galilee — David Amsalem, Likud
Jerusalem and Heritage — Rafi Peretz, Yamina
Regional Cooperation — Yoav Gallant, Likud
Religious Affairs — David Cohen, Shas
Interior — Aryeh Deri, Shas
Health — Yaakov Litzman, United Torah Judaism
Social Equality — Amir Ohana, Likud
Immigration and Absorption — Yuli Edelstein, Likud
Defense — Benny Gantz, Blue and White
Foreign Affairs — Gabi Ashkenazi, Blue and White
Justice — Chili Tropper, Blue and White
Economy — Avi Nissenkorn, Blue and White
Communications — Zvi Hauser, Derech Eretz
Agriculture — Orit Farkash-Hacohen, Blue and White
Environmental Protection — Miki Haimovich, Blue and White
Culture and Sport — Asaf Zamir, Blue and White
Labor and Welfare — Merav Cohen, Blue and White
Diaspora — Pnina Tamano-Shata, Blue and White
Science and Technology — Yizhar Shai, Blue and White
Strategic Affairs — Yoaz Hendel, Derech Eretz

In addition, Communications Minister Ofir Akunis would be appointed ambassador to the UN and Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin would be appointed ambassador to Russia.

Another possibility reported Sunday was that Gantz’s party could give up the position of foreign minister, which is high-ranking but relatively low on influence, in exchange for other portfolios, including potentially the Health Ministry.

According to the Likud source, however, Health Minister Litzman would retain his position after refusing to switch to another role despite Gantz’s demands, and so would his fellow United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, who would stay on as the head of the Knesset’s Finance Committee.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 11, 2019. (Hadas Parush/ Flash90)

Gantz and Netanyahu have reportedly agreed that Edelstein will not be reelected Knesset speaker after he resigned from the position last week in order to avoid having to carry out a Supreme Court order he disagreed with. Gantz on Thursday accused Edelstein of “spitting in the face” of the High Court justices. The speaker’s role will go to another Likud member instead, likely Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, while Edelstein appears set for a significant demotion to the position of immigration and absorption minister, which he held from 2009-2013.

In a move likely to anger many on the left, Regev was listed as being considered for the position of education minister, the Likud source said.

Regev, who has frequently stirred controversy in her attempts to put her stamp on Israel’s culture scene, was first appointed a minister in 2015 when she was given charge of the Culture and Sports Ministry.

In addition, the immigration and absorption portfolio was likely to go to MK Pnina Tamano-Shata, who on Sunday announced she was jumping ship from Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid faction within Blue and White and joining Gantz.

It would be a blow to Gadi Yevarkan, a former Blue and White MK who defected before the March 2 elections to join Likud, and who had previously been promised the role.

Both Likud and Blue and White declined to comment on the draft of ministry portfolios.

Michael Bachner contributed to this report.

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