Gantz, Netanyahu said to agree Edelstein won't be speaker

Litzman to remain health minister in unity government as Gantz backs down

Israel Resilience will instead get justice portfolio, reports say; top doctors had demanded that a professional replace Litzman to deal with pandemic

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with then-health minister Yaakov Litzman, in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with then-health minister Yaakov Litzman, in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman will remain health minister as part of a unity government being negotiated between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel Resilience leader Benny Gantz, Hebrew-language media reported Sunday.

Netanyahu and Gantz held an all-night meeting Saturday to Sunday on the terms of a unity government, which they were hoping to finalize later in the day. 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.

As part of the talks, Gantz’s party had been demanding the health portfolio even if it meant forgoing the Justice Ministry, according to Channel 12.

It was said to be seeking to appoint a non-politician as health minister, such as Prof. Gabi Barbash or Sheba Medical Center director general Yitshak Kreiss.

Prof. Yitshak Kreiss, the Director General of the Sheba Medical Center (Courtesy)

But Litzman strongly refused an offer to become housing minister instead, even if he were handed more areas of responsibility.

Subsequently, Gantz was said to have backed down from that demand and will instead get the justice minister role for his party. The position will reportedly be handed to either Avi Nissenkorn or Chili Tropper, two names that Likud had opposed but has reportedly agreed to in return for Litzman remaining health minister.

Litzman will keep his job despite a group of senior medical officials in major hospitals writing a letter to Netanyahu and Gantz with an urgent demand to appoint a professional figure as health minister instead.

The doctors wrote in the letter that the coronavirus pandemic “has exposed and caught the healthcare system at a low point from an organizational and operational point of view, which everyone had been aware of.”

They laid out problems in the system, including widening gaps between the quality of health services in the center of the country and in the north and south.

“At this time… it is right for a professional to be appointed to head the Health Ministry — a doctor with a rich experience in Israeli healthcare,” they wrote. “Health comes before anything else, definitely before politics.”

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein gives a press statement in the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 12, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In addition, Hebrew media reported that Gantz and Netanyahu have agreed that Yuli Edelstein will not be reelected as 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 said Edelstein “spat in the face” of the judges. The role will go to another Likud member instead.

Also in the coalition talks, Channel 12 said 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 the Blue and White party and joining Gantz’s Israel Resilience; Blue and White has collapsed since Gantz moved to join a government with Netanyahu.

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

Israel Resilience MK Omer Yankelevich is expected to be tapped as Jerusalem affairs minister, becoming Israel’s first-ever female ultra-Orthodox minister.

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

On Saturday, Channel 12 reported that Blue and White MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel were also planning to join Gantz in the government, in a potential boost to Netanyahu’s agenda.

According to the report, should the rightist lawmakers break off from their Telem faction within Blue and White and join a coalition, the government would have a majority of lawmakers with right-wing views. This means, according to the report, that if Netanyahu sought to advance annexation of West Bank areas or other steps after the pandemic ends, Gantz would not be able to prevent it or break up the coalition.

The unity talks came after Gantz in a shock move was elected Knesset speaker Thursday, leading to the dissolution of the Blue and White alliance, which had campaigned during the three elections over the past year on not joining a government led by Netanyahu due to his indictment on graft charges.

A composite image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Benny Gantz at polling stations in Jerusalem and Rosh Haayin, respectively, during the Knesset Elections on March 2, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL, AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Members of Israel Resilience have said the only alternative to joining a Netanyahu-led coalition was a fourth round of elections and that a government is needed to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.

According to the emerging deal, Gantz is set to partner with Netanyahu in a coalition and serve initially as foreign or defense minister before taking over as prime minister in September 2021. Many political analysts doubt that such a rotation will actually take place. (Gabi Ashkenazi, Gantz’s deputy, is set to take whichever of the defense or foreign posts Gantz doesn’t choose.)

However, on Sunday it was reported that Gantz’s party was weighing the possibility of giving up the position of foreign minister, which is high-ranking but relatively low on influence, in exchange for other portfolios.

As part of the negotiations, Netanyahu is seeking legislation saying that an acting prime minister under indictment can continue to serve, in order to ensure he can fill that role when his prime ministerial rotation with Gantz is slated to go into effect. Currently, ministers must resign if they face criminal charges, but the law does not explicitly refer to a prime minister.

Following Gantz’s election Thursday as Knesset speaker, the Yesh Atid and Telem factions, which made up the Blue and White alliance along with Gantz’s party, filed a formal request to break away, leaving only Gantz’s Israel Resilience to join forces with Netanyahu’s Likud-led bloc.

(From L-R) Moshe Ya’alon, Yair Lapid and chairman Benny Gantz attend a Blue and White faction meeting at the Knesset on October 28, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, leader of Telem, have categorically rejected entering a unity government with Likud as long as it is headed by Netanyahu. Both now-former partners have harshly criticized Gantz, the former leader of their alliance, with Lapid excoriating him during a press conference with Ya’alon on Thursday for “crawling” into a coalition of “extremists and extortionists.”

Lapid said the former army chief had betrayed Blue and White’s voters, stolen their votes and handed them to Netanyahu. Despite his claims, Gantz was not entering a unity government, but had simply “surrendered” to Netanyahu, Lapid said.

Gantz has said he was “at peace” with his decision “because I did what my nation needs.”

Gantz was handed the mandate to form a government earlier this month after three rounds of seemingly inconclusive elections, but appeared to have no clear path to forging a stable coalition. Both he and Netanyahu, who has run Israel for over a decade but is facing criminal charges, had publicly touted the need for a national emergency unity government in light of the coronavirus crisis, but neither had appeared to make any meaningful steps toward that goal before a Wednesday phone call between the two.

The Blue and White party came together in 2019, formed of three constituent parts: Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which provided much of the party’s infrastructure having already run in several elections, and Gantz’s Israel Resilience and Ya’alon’s Telem, which were newcomers on Israel’s political scene.

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