Justice Ministry and Knesset Speaker Among Last Hurdles in Netanyahu-Gantz Negotiations

Netanyahu and Gantz plan to have a unity government sworn in before Passover, but negotiations have been stalled by the coronavirus epidemic and key appointments

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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This photo montage show Benny Gantz (L) and Benjamin Netanyahu as they prepare for elbow bumps with President Reuven Rivlin at the President's residence in Jerusalem, March 15, 2020.
This photo montage show Benny Gantz (L) and Benjamin Netanyahu as they prepare for elbow bumps with President Reuven Rivlin at the President's residence in Jerusalem, March 15, 2020.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

Likud and Kahol Lavan officials hope to be able to finalize coalition talks and expect a government to be sworn in on Monday, April 6, a few days before Passover begins.

The cancellation of a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz, scheduled to take place on Monday, delayed the process. The meeting was reportedly postponed as Netanyahu went into self-quarantine at his official residence after one of his aides tested positive for coronavirus. Netanyahu himself tested negative.

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Negotiations are focusing on government appointments, with the Justice Ministry a major point of contention. Likud is strenuously opposing the appointment of Kahol Lavan lawmaker Avi Nissenkorn to the role, preferring Chili Tropper, who is also of Kahol Lavan but preferred by Netanyahu and his right-wing bloc.

The role is crucial as Netanyahu faces criminal proceedings on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Making sure he would face the full force of the law was a primary focus of the Kahol Lavan campaign.

The coalition agreement between Kahol Lavan and Likud includes a framework for organizing the nomination of High Court justices, which will only be done with both parties' agreement.

The justice minister, who will likely be a Kahol Lavan lawmaker, will lead the committee for nominating justices. The committee will be composed of another minister, and two more Knesset members, one from the coalition and one from the opposition, so that Likud can fill two of its seats.

The process of nominating judges within this framework is still unknown. The main factor is that neither side can push through their nomination without the other's approval.

If the fledgling government can last its full three years, the committee will be able to nominate a replacement for Justice Hanan Melcer next April, and in spring 2022, replacements for Justices Neal Hendel and George Karra.

Another dispute is around the role of Knesset speaker. Kahol Lavan officials are insisting that previous Knesset speaker, Likud’s Yuli Edelstein, should not get back into the dais, and that it instead goes to someone in their party. This would be instead of the Foreign Ministry, which Kahol Lavan MK Gabi Ashkenazi eventually turned down after being tapped for the role. Ashkenazi is reportedly looking for a different portfolio, such as health.

Senior Yamina parliamentarians Ayelet Shaked (L) and Bezalel Smotrich (R) outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's official residence, Jerusalem, February 5, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The question of annexing the West Bank, or perhaps of when to annex, is also at issue. Netanyahu is intent on pursuing the controversial move whenever the United States gives its approval, while Kahol Lavan’s position is that the government should only deal with handling the coronavirus crisis in the first six months, postponing other issues to a later time.

The rest of the camps

Meanwhile, other parties allied in principle with Likud and Kahol Lavan are also vying for seats in the cabinet.

Officials at the national-religious Yamina alliance, which sits to the right of Likud, are unhappy about the junior positions they are likely to get in the coalition agreement taking shape. Yamina parliamentarians currently head the Defense, Education and Transportation ministries, but are likely to only retain the education portfolio, and another junior portfolio that will have to be given up halfway through the government’s planned tenure.

This has led Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich and former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to embark on an interview blitz arguing against giving the defense and justice posts to Kahol Lavan. Yamina officials sent Netanyahu a letter on Monday saying they were unsure about serving in a government like the one he is about to form; but, as of publication, Likud officials are not worried about the threats, which they assume are baseless.

On the other side of the aisle, the moribund Labor party, which decided to join the Netanyahu-led coalition on Monday, is seeking two portfolios: the Ministry of Economy for party Chairman Amir Peretz and Social Services Ministry for MK Itzik Shmuli. In addition, the Ministry of Economy is expected to take over the Agriculture Ministry’s department for development in Bedouin communities, as well as employment services, which depend from the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry.

Peretz and Shmuli’s appointments will be part of the 15 ministerial posts reserved for Kahol Lavan, and negotiations were conducted entirely through Gantz. The third Labor MK, Merav Michaeli, said she will not join the coalition and instead stay in the opposition.

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