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Gantz appointed justice minister after Netanyahu U-turn; court cancels hearing

PM backtracks to end crisis ahead of High Court session on matter, still insists contentious cabinet vote appointing his ally Akunis was legal — despite AG ruling it wasn’t

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut (C) and Benny Gantz (L), leader of the Blue and White party, attend a memorial ceremony for late president Shimon Peres at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut (C) and Benny Gantz (L), leader of the Blue and White party, attend a memorial ceremony for late president Shimon Peres at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

While insisting that the disputed vote he held in the cabinet on Tuesday to appoint Likud’s Ofir Akunis as justice minister was a legitimate move, Prime Minister Benjamin backed down Wednesday from his refusal to appoint anyone else to the position, agreeing to make Blue and White’s Benny Gantz justice minister for the duration of the transitional government.

Government ministers approved Gantz’s appointment at a cabinet meeting held via video conference Wednesday afternoon.

Per requests from Netanyahu, Gantz and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, the High Court of Justice then agreed to cancel its scheduled 5 p.m. hearing on the legality of the cabinet vote and the issue of Israel’s lack of a justice minister in general.

Tuesday’s developments were a striking about-face from Netanyahu after Monday’s fracas. Pundits remarked that the prime minister had likely underestimated the public furor his actions would cause and decided he preferred to shift public focus away from the issue as he fights to hold on to power in the wake of last month’s election.

The High Court had on Tuesday temporarily frozen the appointment of Akunis after the cabinet — led by Netanyahu — openly defied Mandelblit’s forceful warnings that the vote was illegal and pushed through the appointment.

The cabinet meeting quickly devolved into a shouting match between Likud and Blue and White ministers. Netanyahu had been implacably opposed to making Gantz the permanent justice minister, after the latter’s three-month interim term ran out several weeks ago, and Gantz had insisted that only he had the right to select a candidate for the post and nominated himself.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the interim justice minister, arrives at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem on January 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Netanyahu’s office said that “after his compromise offers were once again rejected this morning, and to exit the dead end and enable the necessary activity of the Justice Ministry, the prime minister has decided to appoint Benny Gantz as justice minister in the transitional government.”

Gantz’s first order of business, hours after the appointment, was to sign off on a directive allowing detainees and prisoners to attend court hearings by video conference, due to concerns that bringing unvaccinated inmates to courthouses could lead to the spread of COVID-19.

Netanyahu also told the court that he would fill several other unstaffed ministerial roles at Sunday’s cabinet meeting.

The announcement came shortly after Netanyahu submitted his response to the High Court of Justice regarding the validity of Akunis’s appointment. In it, he insisted the cabinet vote on the matter was legal despite Mandelblit asserting it violated legally binding parts of the coalition agreement.

In a response filed by his attorney David Peter, Netanyahu had argued that he was authorized to appoint a justice minister and that the court and the attorney general aren’t a “super-government.” He said the court was “blocking the appointment of a vital minister and leading the system to a dead end.”

Following Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, High Court justices ruled that Akunis could not serve as justice minister until it reached a final ruling and said the position would remain vacant in the interim.

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

Responding to the U-turn by Netanyahu, Gantz’s Blue and White party said in a tweet that it would “continue to safeguard democracy.”

Blue and White claimed it had thwarted a plot — which it nicknamed the “April scheme” — by Netanyahu to fire center-left ministers and take control of the power-sharing government.

As part of Gantz’s coalition agreement with Netanyahu last year, 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 slate. Gantz, who is also defense minister, subsequently took on the post in an interim capacity and over the past several weeks repeatedly called on Netanyahu to hold a vote to appoint him permanent minister.

Gantz’s interim term ran out at the end of March, and Israel has been without a justice minister throughout April.

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.

He then agreed to bring Gantz’s appointment to a vote, but it was shot down by the premier’s bloc of ministers, 17 to 10. Netanyahu then surprised everyone by nominating his own party’s Akunis as an alternative candidate.

When Gantz argued he could not do so due to the coalition deal, Netanyahu claimed there were “questions” as to whether his coalition agreement with Gantz, which reserves the justice minister 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.

Netanyahu pushed forward with the vote despite Mandelblit’s objections, and Akunis was approved by a majority of the cabinet. Mandeblit made clear his stance that the vote was illegal and Akunis was not the justice minister.

In leaked recordings from the meeting, Mandelblit 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.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, September 21, 2014. (AP/Menahem Kahana, Pool/File)

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.”

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.”

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

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

“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,” said Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.

The lack of a justice minister since the beginning of the month has had 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 affected 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 have potentially affected urgent legislation regarding peace agreements.

Netanyahu, who is on trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, has railed against the justice system, police, left-wing opposition and media, accusing them of conspiring to remove him from power. He denies any wrongdoing.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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