Netanyahu holds talks with Likud rebels to shore up coalition before swearing-in

Netanyahu holds talks with Likud rebels to shore up coalition before swearing-in

Eli Cohen named intelligence minister, Gila Gamliel takes environment post, but no progress reported in talks with unhappy MKs jockeying for jobs; Steinitz out as energy minister

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, is flanked by Likud lawmakers at the party's post-election event in Tel Aviv, on March 2, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, is flanked by Likud lawmakers at the party's post-election event in Tel Aviv, on March 2, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemingly continued to face resistance as he met with lawmakers on Saturday evening in a bid to finish doling out ministerial posts ahead of the new government’s swearing-in, ostensibly scheduled for Sunday afternoon.

As the clock struck midnight, only two positions had apparently been accepted, as haggling continued with other lawmakers jockeying for posts, including two who staged a rare public rebellion on Thursday that forced the government’s planned swearing-in to be delayed.

Netanyahu announced on Twitter Saturday night that outgoing Economy Minister Eli Cohen would become the new intelligence minister.

“The Israeli intelligence apparatus is renowned internationally and has tremendous importance to the country’s security. I’ll work to strengthen and upgrade the intelligence system,” Cohen was quoted saying in a Likud party statement.

Cohen was previously a lawmaker in outgoing Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, which was folded into Likud last year.

Economy Minister Eli Cohen gives a speech at a Likud party rally in Or Yehuda on February 13, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

In addition, outgoing Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel, who had reportedly turned down the position of higher education minister last week, said she accepted an appointment to become the new environmental protection minister.

Gamliel confirmed the appointment on Twitter and indicated that she would place climate change as the number one item on her ministry’s agenda. “The climate crisis is one of the most important issues for humanity and it should top our priorities,” she wrote.

Among the other MKs Netanyahu met with on Saturday were Gideon Sa’ar, Avi Dichter and Tzachi Hanegbi.

Sa’ar, who unsuccessfully challenged Netanyahu in the Likud leadership primary in December and is considered the prime minister’s top rival in the party, has not been linked to any government role.

Dichter and Hanegbi last week publicly came out against Netanyahu, saying they would not attend Thursday’s planned swearing-in ceremony before it was pushed off to Sunday, as the premier had not met with them beforehand to discuss their roles.

Also Saturday, Hebrew-language media reports said Netanyahu informed Likud MK Yuval Steinitz that he will not continue his role as energy minister in the new government.

According to reports, Steinitz was offered a position as minister of higher education and a spot on the high-level security cabinet but turned these offers down. He is expected to serve as an MK and not a minister.

It was unclear whether he would be offered another position or be demoted to MK. It was also not clear which Likud lawmaker will now take over at the Energy Ministry.

Steinitz, who is considered close to Netanyahu, has served as a minister since 2009.

Netanyahu had previously offered Steinitz the Education Ministry, the most senior remaining post, according to a report last week, but that role is now expected to go to Likud MKs Nir Barkat or Yoav Galant.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz during a Likud party meeting at the Knesset on May 29, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Under the coalition deal signed last month between Likud and Blue and White, the new government will initially have at least 34 ministers and 16 deputy ministers — divided equally between the Netanyahu- and Gantz-led blocs — before swelling to 36 in six months in what would be the largest government in Israel’s history.

But despite the enormous cabinet, Netanyahu has struggled to keep the party’s rank-and-file happy by finding enough positions for both up-and-coming loyalists and more moderate Likud stalwarts who finished with top spots in the party’s primary.

The process has involved appointing some ministers to diplomatic roles abroad and creating new ministries, such as the Community Advancement Ministry created for Gesher’s Orly Levy-Abukasis.

On Friday, Channel 12 reported Netanyahu was working to put together a new ministry for settlement affairs in a gesture to right-wing voters after leaving the national-religious Yamina party out of the new government.

Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely, the outgoing diaspora affairs minister and one of the most prominent national-religious politicians in Netanyahu’s party, was likely expected to first receive the post, the report said.

After 18 months, when Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz takes over for Netanyahu as prime minister as part of the coalition agreement, Hanegbi could replace Hotovely, the network reported.

Likud sources told The Times of Israel on Thursday that Netanyahu sought to convince MK Rafi Peretz to accept the new post of minister for settlement affairs after agreeing to bolt Yamina and be appointed as minister of Jerusalem affairs, heritage and national projects.

Peretz flatly rejected that offer and on Friday reached an agreement with Netanyahu to be Jerusalem minister.

The move by the outgoing education minister and former IDF chief rabbi was met with anger among some of his Yamina allies, who were shunted to the opposition after failing to cut a deal with the Likud on ministerial portfolios.

Rafi Peretz, then-leader of the Jewish Home party, in Petah Tikva, February 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Besides potentially mollifying national-religious supporters of Yamina, which was a key part of Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc in the last two election campaigns, the creation of the new ministry would give the premier another ministerial post to offer to Likud lawmakers.

On Thursday, hours before Israel’s new unity government was finally set to be sworn in, the event was pushed off to Sunday, after Netanyahu faced a minor mutiny in his own party. Numerous Likud MKs, some of them ministers and veteran lawmakers, were privately, and in some cases publicly, rebelling against the prime minister, furious that they had been offered minor government positions or no post at all.

The decision to push off the ceremony meant the ending to Israel’s 500-plus days of political deadlock — which included three inconclusive election cycles and numerous repeated failed attempts to form a government — would have to wait.

The two sides have until midnight on Wednesday to swear in the new government before new elections are automatically triggered. Most analysts believe Netanyahu will prove able to weather the crisis, and that the coalition will be sworn in on time.

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