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'This is not government we wished for. Time to end chaos'

Gantz sets collision course with PM and Likud, vows to fill state attorney post

With MKs agitated by protest ban, minister quitting, Blue and White chief takes new aggressive stance to defend ‘rule of law,’ says any who object ‘free to set date for elections’

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to the media outside his home in Rosh Haayin, August 9, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to the media outside his home in Rosh Haayin, August 9, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz appeared to set himself on a new collision path with Likud and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Friday, announcing his Blue and White party would move immediately to make a permanent appointment to the post of state attorney, which has not been properly filled since December of last year.

“We joined a government whose job it is to eradicate the coronavirus, not democracy or the rule of law,” Gantz said. “If that is inconvenient to some, they are free to set a date for elections.”

Channel 12 news reported the move was part of a deliberate change of attitude by Blue and White, reflecting a determination to take a more confrontational approach against Netanyahu amid the realization that its attempts at compromise thus far have not served it well.

The shift followed the Knesset’s final approval late Thursday of strict curbs on demonstrations during the COVID-19 lockdown — a restriction insisted upon by Likud, and resisted by many in Blue and White, amid months of large protests against Netanyahu — and came hours after Blue and White’s Tourism Minister Assaf Zamir quit the government with an attack on the new law and on Netanyahu.

Likud in response accused Blue and White of playing political games and breaking coalition agreements “in a desperate attempt to cobble up some left-wing votes and to prevent their collapse in the polls.”

It added: “Blue and White are in the government while acting against the government. It’s time they decided whether they’re fighting the pandemic or fighting the government.”

Netanyahu, on trial in three corruption cases, is seen as unlikely to agree to (Blue and White) Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn’s pick for the state attorney post. In their coalition agreement, the parties agreed to put off any senior nominations which they are likely to clash over. Blue and White cannot appoint a new state attorney without Likud’s agreement, but a hard push to do so by Gantz’s party would further destabilize the already shaky foundations of the dysfunctional unity government.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset plenum on August 24, 2020. (Knesset Spokesperson’s Office)

Gantz’s statement, in which he repeatedly, though indirectly, attacked Netanyahu, was his most combative since entering into a unity coalition with the prime minister in May.

It came a short time after Tourism Minister Zamir announced his resignation from the government, over the passage of the legislation this week to restrict demonstrations during the current coronavirus lockdown and in protest at what Zamir said was Netanyahu’s prioritizing of his own personal and legal considerations over Israel’s national interest. The protests law has caused serious agitation within Gantz’s party, with many believing it betrayed the party’s core tenet of halting attempts to erode Israel’s democracy.

Israel “is facing a deep and severe crisis: a health crisis, but alongside it, and no less significant, a crisis of trust between the leadership and the citizenry,” Gantz said. “A focus on political interests is taking precedence over maintaining public health and the livelihood of millions of families who rightly fear for their fate and jobs.”

Lamenting that “this is not the government we wished for,” Gantz said it was time to end the “chaos” in the government and fill senior law enforcement posts that have long been manned by temporary appointments.

“In order to bring back control and governmental order I have instructed the justice minister to begin an expedited process to appoint a permanent state attorney, according to all proper procedures, and I call to launch a process to appoint a permanent police chief,” he said.

Blue and White MK Asaf Zamir, before becoming tourism minister, at a party faction meeting in Tel Aviv on January 8, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“My friends and I will fight to bring back order and stability and to safeguard the democratic system from those who plot to destroy it,” Gantz said.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana of Likud is in charge of nominating a police chief.

Israel has been without a permanent state attorney since December 2019, with the end of the term of Shai Nitzan. Nitzan was one of the key figures in the investigation and indictment of Netanyahu on corruption charges and was often a target of attacks by the prime minister and his allies.

But the political turmoil of Israel’s three election campaigns in 2019-2020, and Israel’s lack of an elected government throughout that period, meant no formal replacement could be appointed. In February 2019 Ohana, then acting justice minister, appointed Dan Eldad as acting state attorney. Eldad clashed often with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit — as did Ohana — with the former reported to believe Eldad was doing Ohana and Netanyahu’s bidding in the post. He was removed from the position in May of that year after the High Court of Justice prevented his tenure from being extended.

Mandelblit has been serving as acting state attorney since that time. May 2020’s new government has put off discussions on a permanent replacement that would certainly be highly divisive.

Former State Attorney Shai Nitzan speaks at the Calcalist conference in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2019. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Similarly, the Israel Police have been without a commissioner since December 2018 with the end of the term of Roni Alsheich. Alsheich too was a key figure in the Netanyahu probes and thus reviled by Netanyahu and Likud as one of the figures the premier claims — without evidence — to be involved in an attempted coup against him. Motti Cohen has been acting police chief since Alsheich’s departure and has had his tenure extended several times.

The appointment of a permanent police chief is seen as a hot potato issue for the same reason as the appointment of a state attorney: Both are highly influential posts in Israel’s law enforcement system, and amid Netanyahu’s legal woes, neither Likud nor Blue and White trust the other side to hold the selection process in a fair and balanced manner.

Earlier, Tourism Minister Zamir said he “can no longer sit in a government in whose leader I haven’t an iota of faith,” in reference to Netanyahu.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at an event at Bar Ilan University, March 4, 2020. (FLASH90)

Zamir noted that Blue and White had decided to join a unity government with Netanyahu after a third consecutive round of elections in March ended inconclusively — despite having campaigned heavily on replacing him. He said that despite outrage over the move by many Blue and White voters, he had supported ending the political gridlock while trying to influence the government from within.

“I no longer feel that way,” he said.  Zamir said that the cabinet’s approval of regulations limiting protests that were subsequently ratified by the Knesset earlier this week were the “final straw” for him.

Zamir, a former deputy mayor of Tel Aviv who may be setting his sights on the mayor’s job, accused Netanyahu of prioritizing his legal troubles over the fight against the coronavirus.

People protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem, on September 26, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gantz said he “received with understanding and sorrow the resignation notice,” adding: “In recent weeks, we have had long and honest conversations that expressed the common feelings of many in the government, in the Knesset and in every home in Israel.”

Zamir was not the first Blue and White minister to express interest in resigning this week over the protest ban, but he was the first one to follow through.

Science and Technology Minister Izhar Shay backtracked from plans to quit the government in protest over lockdown rules late Thursday.

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