PM said seeking Gantz’s okay for 36 ministers now, in bid to bring in Yamina
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PM said seeking Gantz’s okay for 36 ministers now, in bid to bring in Yamina

Coalition deal calls for no more than 32 ministers for first 6 months; Bennett charges Netanyahu doesn’t want Yamina in the new government

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

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett at his Yamina party's campaign headquarters in Ramat Gan on March 2, 2020. (Flash90)
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett at his Yamina party's campaign headquarters in Ramat Gan on March 2, 2020. (Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking to expand the blueprint for the new government and swear in 36 ministers on Thursday instead of the agreed-upon 32, Channel 12 reported Monday, in a bid to coax the Yamina party, which has said it will remain outside the coalition, to join.

Likud and Blue and White had agreed to start the government with 30 ministers plus Netanyahu and Benny Gantz for the initial six-month emergency period in which it will focus on combating the coronavirus. Afterwards it could be expanded up to 36 in all.

But Monday’s report said Netanyahu was now seeking to immediately go to 36.

The report said that Netanyahu asked Gantz to agree to this a few days ago. The move would help the prime minister deal with pressure for ministerial positions within Likud as well as possibly paving the way for Yamina to join.

The report said that Gantz was expected to agree to the request. But a source in Blue and White told the Ynet news site that “the issue wasn’t brought up for discussion at all.”

Channel 13 reported Monday evening that Yamina had renewed its talks with Likud to join the government. The network said that Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett was reconsidering an offer to be tapped as education minister, which he had previously dismissed.

Earlier in the day Bennett, the outgoing defense minister, claimed Netanyahu did not want Yamina in the next government.

“How do I know? Because Netanyahu and Gantz declared the formation of a ‘coronavirus emergency government.’ The most important ministry on this matter is the Health Ministry and they’re fleeing from it with all their might as if this ministry is a pandemic,” Bennett said during a press conference (in fact Gantz has been rumored to want the health portfolio for Blue and White).

The Yamina chief reiterated he would be willing to serve as health minister and denied the party was seeking three ministerial portfolios for its six lawmakers, asserting it wants “influence” in the government.

“I would take it upon myself to carry out what I said in the field of health so that in 140 days we won’t need to destroy the economy and close down the country again,” he said. “I officially requested this from the prime minister, but [got] nothing.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Defense Minister Naftali Bennett during a meeting in the Knesset with the heads of right-wing parties, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

If Yamina doesn’t join the government, Bennett said, “we’ll build an alternate model of government” from the opposition benches.

“A right wing that comes not to fight but to do. A right wing that doesn’t speak about judges, but appoints them. A right wing that doesn’t speak about sovereignty [in the West Bank], but rather applies sovereignty,” he said.

He also accused Netanyahu’s Likud party of wanting Yamina to be “irrelevant and without influence.”

Likud quickly fired back.

“It’s unfortunate that because of an internal battle over [ministerial] portfolios Yamina is prepared to join the left-wing opposition of [Yesh Atid-Telem leader] Yair Lapid and [Joint List MK] Heba Yazbak,” a Likud source was quoted saying in a statement from the party.

It added: “Prime Minister Netanyahu is bringing about a historic step of applying sovereignty to Judea and Samaria and rather than taking part in this move, Bennett is surrendering to an internal political struggle, is ready to give up on religious Zionism’s place in the government and is running away from leadership.”

The back-and-forth came after Yamina claimed Sunday it was headed to the opposition as talks with Likud fell apart, saying it didn’t want to be part of an apparent “left-wing government” headed by Netanyahu.

Yamina has been a key part of Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc over the past two elections, though the premier and Bennett are widely believed to have a fraught relationship.

Yamina leaders (left to right) Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, former justice minister Ayelet Shaked and Education Minister Rafi Peretz at the party’s election-night headquarters in Ramat Gan on March 2, 2020. (Flash90)

With Netanyahu ceding half of all cabinet positions to Gantz’s bloc as part of the coalition agreement, Yamina was only offered two ministries — education and Jerusalem affairs — within what is set to be Israel’s largest cabinet ever.

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