Hours before Israel’s new unity government was finally set to be sworn in, Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz on Thursday evening accepted a request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to push off the event to Sunday, as the Likud leader struggled to divvy out the remaining available ministerial posts in his incoming coalition to lawmakers from his own Likud party.
Numerous Likud MKs, some of them ministers and veteran lawmakers, were privately and in some cases publicly rebelling against Netanyahu, furious that they had been offered minor government positions or no post at all.
At least two, Avi Dichter and Tzachi Hanegbi, passed over for ministerial positions, vowed they would boycott the swearing-in ceremony. Ex-Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat reportedly rejected a minor ministerial post, as did fellow Likud MK Gila Gamliel. Senior Likud MKs David Amsalem and David Bitan were also reportedly among those deeply disgruntled at not being offered ministerial posts.
The decision means 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 — will have to wait.
The two sides have until midnight Wednesday to swear in the new government before new elections are automatically triggered. Most analysts believe Netanyahu will prove able to deal with the crisis, and that the coalition will be sworn in next week.
Following a joint statement from Blue and White and Likud, Gantz told the Knesset that he was withdrawing his resignation as speaker of parliament, a move that would have allowed Likud’s Yariv Levin to take up the position. Retaining the speakership ostensibly gives Gantz leverage over Netanyahu to prevent him from canceling the swearing-in altogether and forcing fourth elections.
Blue and White sources told The Times of Israel that Gantz first found out about Netanyahu’s “request” to delay the swearing in of the new government from the media, forcing him to accept.
“We knew there was a mess at Likud but there was no formal request to move [the swearing-in ceremony] to Sunday,” an official in the party said. “But once it was out there, it became impossible to say no.”
An MK from the party, who asked to remain anonymous, added that communication from Likud throughout the day had been “at a bare minimum.”
Both Netanyahu and Gantz, who will serve as alternate prime minister and defense minister for the first 18 months of the soon-to-be formed government, were spending Thursday appointing lawmakers from their respective blocs to ministerial posts.
But while Gantz’s appointments appeared to be going forward smoothly, albeit at the last minute, Netanyahu faced a growing number of lawmakers who were refusing the positions he was offering them on the grounds that they represented less than what the Likud leader had promised in the past.
Netanyahu offered outgoing Social Equality Minister Gamliel the position of “minister of higher education,” a new post that would split the Education Ministry. However, the Likud MK, who has been rallying members of the party to back her for education minister, turned down the less substantial offer, apparently unwilling to settle for anything less.
Miri Regev, offered the Transportation Ministry, was also said to be unhappy with the role, expecting a more senior position.
Earlier on Thursday, Yamina MK Rafi Peretz notified his national religious alliance that he would be severing ties with it in order to take a position in Netanyahu’s government. But while he did so under the premise that Netanyahu would appoint him Jerusalem affairs minister, Likud officials told The Times of Israel that Netanyahu was seeking to convince Peretz to accept a newly created post of “minister for settlement affairs” as he had already promised the Jerusalem post to Likud MK David Amsalem.
This would apparently mean turning the Settlement Division — a body under the World Zionist Organization that was established in 1971 to promote settlement beyond the Green Line but that has since expanded its operations to within Israel proper as well — into an entire cabinet ministry, with questionable authority and budget.
Peretz flatly rejected that offer and has threatened to bolt to the opposition if Netanyahu does not name him Jerusalem affairs minister as initially promised, the Kan public broadcaster reported. It was not clear whether Peretz would be welcomed back into Yamina if he were to refuse to join the government given his decision to abandon the party just hours earlier.
Meanwhile, before it was pushed off, two senior Likud members — former Shin Bet chief Dichter and longtime Netanyahu ally and current-Regional Cooperation Minister Hanegbi — announced they would not attend the swearing-in ceremony due to having been subbed by the prime minister.
“The disrespect is not only to me, but a spit in the face to 130,000 Likud members who chose me in the top ten in Likud,” Dichter told close associates after Netanyahu informed him that he would not be receiving a portfolio in the new government. “I didn’t even get the courtesy of a hint of a meeting” with Netanyahu, Dichter later said in a TV interview.
“As of right now, minutes before the government’s swearing in, I have not yet been invited to discussions on the new government. I guess I am not needed in the Knesset tonight,” said Hanegbi.
Thus far, Likud’s Yuli Edelstein has been appointed health minister, Israel Katz will get the treasury, Ofir Akunis was tapped as regional affairs minister, Amir Ohana will head the Public Security Minister, and Levin has been nominated Knesset speaker.
Under the coalition deal signed last month between Likud and Blue and White, the new government will initially have at least 32 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.
Netanyahu late Wednesday and early Thursday signed coalition agreements with his long-time ultra-Orthodox allies, United Torah Judaism and Shas, as well as the right-wing Gesher.
Former Likud minister Haim Katz, who is under criminal indictment and cannot be appointed a minister, will head up the Knesset’s Labor and Welfare Committee. That post was held by Katz from 2005 to 2006 and again from 2009 to 2013, during which time he allegedly perpetrated the fraud and breach of trust for which he will stand trial.
Shas leader Aryeh Deri will remain interior minister as part of his deal with Likud. Deri also announced Wednesday that Rabbi Yaakov Avitan, an Ashkelon city council member for Shas who is not a Knesset member, will be tapped as religious affairs minister. United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman will become housing minister.
Gesher leader Orly Levy-Abekasis also signed a coalition deal with Netanyahu, which will see her head the newly created Community Empowerment and Advancement Ministry.
For Blue and White, Gantz confirmed Ashkenazi as foreign minister for the next 18 months before he assumes defense, and MK Avi Nissenkorn as justice minister. He tapped MK Pnina Tamano-Shata as immigration absorption minister, making her the first Ethiopia-born immigrant in Israel’s history to join the cabinet. MK Izhar Shai, an electrical engineer, was appointed science and technology minister, while party lawmaker Chili Tropper will head the Culture and Sports Ministry. MK Alon Shuster will lead the Agriculture Ministry.
Gantz also met with Labor’s Itzik Shmuli and handed him the labor and welfare portfolio. He is expected to task Labor leader Amir Peretz, with whom he clinched a coalition agreement, with the Economy Ministry later in the day.
In addition to Labor, Blue and White also inked a coalition deal with Derech Eretz. The small right-wing faction comprises just two MKs — Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser — who splintered from Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem party to join Gantz in a coalition with Netanyahu.
Gantz gave Hendel the Communications Ministry and Hauser control of the powerful Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee.